New analysis from computer scientists and political scientists based at the Oxford Internet Institute, part of the University of Oxford, King’s College London, and the University of Exeter, proposes new metrics for measuring volatility in political systems and subsequent changes in public opinion.

In the paper “Measuring the volatility of the political agenda in public opinion and news media”, published in the journal Public Opinion Quarterly, the authors argue that the existing tools for measuring volatility are inadequate for understanding system-wide changes in the political agenda, which are common in public opinion and in news media.

Lead author Dr Chico Camargo, Research Associate at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, and Lecturer in Computer Science at the University of Exeter, provides some context:

“Recent election surprises, regime changes, and political shocks suggest that political agendas have become fast-moving and volatile. The ability to be able to measure the complex dynamics of agenda change and capture the nature and extent of volatility in political systems is, therefore, more crucial than ever before. Particularly for policymakers and government officials tasked with understanding shifts in public opinion and using those insights to inform public policy. We need measures of volatility to be scalable and to work in multiple contexts.”

The paper, co-authored with Professor Peter John, King’s College London, Professor Helen Margetts, OBE, FBA, Oxford Internet Institute and Director of the Public Policy Programme at The Alan Turing Institute, and Dr Scott A. Hale, Associate Professor and Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, proposes two new metrics for measuring volatility in political systems and public opinion.

The authors look to extend the current research debate by combining elements from political theory and information theory to bring the concept of volatility in the political agenda to life. They propose two new measures to assess the system-level change in an agenda over time, by analysing the number of issues receiving attention simultaneously, and by measuring how attention shifts from one set of issues to another over time.

In their paper, the authors apply their measures by assessing the volatility of public opinion polls and news media data in the UK and Germany, focusing on content from media outlets The Times and Der Spiegel. The researchers used a topic modelling algorithm to measure the number of issues active in the news media and track the month-to-month change in the news media agenda as a whole.

Explains Camargo, “At present there is no volatility measurement metric in widespread use that measures the whole of an agenda, capturing both sudden rises and drops in issue importance and being able to differentiate many insignificant changes from one large change in the agenda. In our paper, we address these gaps using tools from the field of information theory and propose new measures that are both very sound to political scientists and very interpretable for policymakers trying to track changes in public opinion”.

Co-author Associate Professor and Senior Research Fellow, Dr Scott A. Hale adds: “The measures that we have operationalised here can be applied to both media attention and public opinion, but future research might apply the same measures to other domains within the political system, such as legislative attention. With an information-centric and multi-disciplinary approach, our measures of volatility in political attention will enable further research in this important area”.

Notes for editors:

About the research

The research is peer reviewed and the full article is published in the journal Public Opinion Quarterly Review. The project was funded by The Alan Turing Institute and the Volkswagen Foundation.

About the OII

The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) is a multidisciplinary research and teaching department of the University of Oxford, dedicated to the social science of the Internet. Drawing from many different disciplines, the OII works to understand how individual and collective behaviour online shapes our social, economic and political world. Since its founding in 2001, research from the OII has had a significant impact on policy debate, formulation and implementation around the globe, as well as a secondary impact on people’s wellbeing, safety and understanding. Drawing on many different disciplines, the OII takes a combined approach to tackling society’s big questions, with the aim of positively shaping the development of the digital world for the public good.