Time was when our opinions regarding issues were highly influenced by what we read in the media or discussed within our social circles. That has not really changed but in an environment where so much is discussed and shared online, it is worthwhile to examine how public opinion is shaped in this new world order.

‘Birds of a feather flock together’ may be an oversimplified representation of how we make friends and form groups but it is not too far off the mark. In today’s world, an individual’s level of global exposure can range from low to high depending on whether they have had an insular or more open upbringing. Regardless of this, finding like-minded individuals to socialize with is a priority for most people.

Our circles of family and friends are the filters through which we interpret experiences, events, people and more. Although we are not always entirely aligned with our friends’ views on these subjects, we do tend to think as they do, to a large extent.

Our opinions are not rigid and unchangeable and we can certainly progress from a conservative outlook on a topic to a more liberal stance and vice versa. Our life experiences, including the people we interact with and the places we live in – all of these have a role to play in moulding our views and opinions. But, ultimately, we seek validation and affirmation for these through our groups or circles. If there is safety in numbers, our circles provide a secure place from which we can hold on to our views on politics, world events, books, movies and more. In that sense, public opinion may be going the way of religion with organized groups demonstrating high levels of group think.

Our circles are now online but their role in influencing our opinions is as strong as ever and perhaps even magnified by social media effects. Media stories may still sway us but that effect is tempered by the parameter of what our friends are watching and reading. The ability to share and post stories that we connect with gives every single one of us the power to project our ideas and views on to a larger group. Depending on the content and the receptiveness of the group to these ideas, the result could be viral gold for the given news item, video or post.

There are now other groups and special interests ranging from school committees to fitness clubs that also vie for our attention. Affiliating ourselves with these groups is part of the whole image calibration exercise that we all unwittingly participate in online. But it also places us at the receiving end of more messages and ideas to imbibe and potentially act upon.

In addition, there are the opinions of people whom we ‘follow’ online. Although this dynamic may be overrated, there are clearly celebrities whom we respect and whose views we don’t easily ignore because of who they are and what they have accomplished. A tweet by a Nobel laureate on the effects of global warming, for instance, may give us pause more than a doomsday scenario outlined by a co-worker.

When the idea or opinion that is being propagated has real world implications that touch a chord with many people, the results can be startling. This is clearly what happened in the Middle East in 2011 when discontent simmering beneath the surface was torched into life by a series of tweets.

Yet, ultimately, the uprisings failed to achieve desired results for the countries involved because they lacked the organization and vision needed to see them through. The same is true of the Anna Hazare movement, the initial fire of which was fueled by the frustration that ordinary Indians felt with the rot and corruption in the system. The fire died a natural death after it became clear that Anna’s convictions and principles alone were not enough to sustain and guide the movement. The movement’s legacy may live on through the other leaders that it spawned, but that is fodder for another debate.

What these examples illustrate is that a trickle of opinion can grow quickly to become a torrent. In other words, the medium can create a movement. But it still requires on the ground planning, strong leadership and an overarching strategy to see real success.

At the individual level, we may disagree with certain posted views or accord more value to the views of certain friends. But, the very fact that these opinions originate from within our network may allow us to entertain them with a greater degree of tolerance and understanding. But the limits of this tolerance can be reached very quickly. While many online discussions are of the friendly variety – the semi-serious exchange of views you may find when friends get together over drinks or dinner or both – there are others that can border on hostile and aggressive.

It can get even more ugly as you move beyond the sanitized safety of your circles and discover that the internet is not really a place for moderate opinion. It harbors trolls and flamers who specialize in posting incendiary comments and is a space where successes are routinely belittled and failures just as regularly exaggerated. There are organized groups that target those who disagree with them as well as governments that try to keep sentiments from being shared too freely.

Which brings us to the conclusion of this analysis: yes, public opinion can be shaped by everything that is shared, viewed and propagated online. But, at the individual level, opinion can also be threatened, manipulated and – if all else fails – suppressed.

Shane Jacob is a former VP at The PRactice.