Tracing public opinion on global issues

Tom Etienne, a joint doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication and the Department of Political Science, uses his skills in data collection to analyze political opinions.

Tom Etienne is fascinated by public opinion. For years, Etienne has spent his time developing tools to help voters compare their political views with those running for office.

Though Belgian by birth, Etienne, who is now a joint doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication and the Department of Political Science, considers himself an honorary Amsterdamer. It was there that he earned a master’s degree from the University of Amsterdam and stayed to work with Kieskompas (Election Compass), a research institute that produces voting guides for the public.

Tom Etienne with students sitting outside.
Doctoral student Tom Etienne with students from his cohort. (Image: Courtesy of Annenberg School for Communication)

At Kieskompas, Etienne developed over 30 online “election compasses”—interactive surveys that allow voters to compare their views on taxes, the environment, immigration, and other issues with those of candidates running for office.

At Annenberg, where Etienne is a first-year doctoral student, he is using these skills to analyze public opinion in the U.S. and Western Europe on a breadth of global issues—from conspiracy theories to nuclear disarmament.

The election compasses Etienne created at Kieskompas resemble a BuzzFeed quiz, but instead of determining which White Lotus character you are or which Pop Tart flavor matches your personality, these questionnaires show users where they fit in the political landscape of their town, province, country.

Results are presented as an interactive graph representing the political spectrum—with conservative to progressive on one axis and economically right to economically left on the other. The user is shown their coordinates on the graph and those of various candidates.

Etienne spent a year in Pennsylvania before he began his doctoral program at Annenberg, working with Sona Golder at The Pennsylvania State University. With Golder, he worked on the InstaParty Project, a study on political party instability in European parliaments.

“The InstaParty project maps instability in European parliaments when members of parliament switch parties, when parties collapse or emerge, and so on,” Etienne says. “My job consisted of going through archives of the Dutch parliament as well as other sources such as media articles to list all party switches since roughly the 1960s.”

Mapping these changes was almost like taking part in a political reality show, Etienne says, since many party switches were driven by internal disagreement and petty disputes.

This story is by Hailey Reissman. Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.