It is far from certain whether global public opinion exists, but there is hardly any doubt that the struggle to dominate it is in existence – struggle getting ever fiercer. This is no paradox. In human history, non-existent things have quite often both caused enormous tragedies and produced mass outbursts of happiness. That is the way human mentality works – with illusion and reality intricately intermingled, and the difference between the two – as Mark Twain said – is like the difference between mermaid and a seal.
In classical works of social science, public opinion is usually conceived as a collective property, an expression of the collective’s conception of itself and its role in history. Individuals could have a more or less correct interpretation of this volonte generale, to use Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s term. If their interpretations were too deviant, they became viewed as being stupid, unaware, false, insane, or, at worst, criminal and a danger to society. But Rousseau assigns another meaning to public opinion: volonte de tous, the will of all. In this case, opinion is an attribute of individuals, not of the collective. It can be questioned and discussed, and it may be summarized as majorities and minorities (Marita Carballo). Jürgen Habermas explains that the idea of public opinion was the result of the appearance in the 18th century, within a delicate balance of social and institutional conditions, of a new social actor – the urban bourgeoisie standing between state and society. During the 1930s and 1940s, the idea of public opinion as a measurable quantity started to spread and was soon installed as a symbol of democratic life.