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Political information in the age of the internet

Digital technologies provide a vast and accessible supply of information for voters. And yet, research suggests that the American electorate is no better informed than it was in the late 1980s. This column argues that the digital revolution has changed the distribution of news and data, increasing informational asymmetries across issues, amplifying the influence of extremist voters, and diverting attention away from important but non-controversial policies. 

The digital revolution has disintermediated the provision of information. One voter can choose to read about education reform while another reads about gun control. What we know is determined less by what information the media provides, and more by what and where we search of our own initiative, or by information provided by peers (Prior 2007, Sunstein 2017). Readers can easily collect detailed information on a narrow issue while remaining uninformed about everything else. Because information remains costly to absorb and process, individuals can be selective in the information they acquire. By contrast, when network television and newspapers were the main sources of political information, it was more difficult to be well informed about narrow and specific issues; at the same time, individuals could not avoid being exposed to general news, even while searching for precise information or seeking entertainment. As a result, political information was more uniform across individuals and issues. 

What effect does the possibility of selective ignorance have on political and policy outcomes? In particular, who is informed, and about what, in a world in which information is easy to obtain but costly to absorb? And how does this affect politicians’ choices of what policies to propose and support? Could better information technology have adverse effects on the functioning of representative democracies, as many commentators suggest? These are the questions we address in a recent paper (Matejka and Tabellini 2015).

Costly attention and electoral competition

We study a theoretical framework in which voters allocate costly attention to political news, and politicians take this into account in setting policies. Policy is set by the winner of elections between two political candidates, each of whom chooses their policy proposals (or programmes) to maximise the probability of winning. Voters cannot perfectly predict politicians’ policy proposals, but they can devote costly attention to becoming better informed about policy consequences or the positions of both candidates.

We obtain several general results. First, attention is not uniform, but differs across voters and policy issues. Voters are more attentive if they have come to see the stakes as higher from observing the candidates’ policy announcements or from understanding policy consequences. Second, the political process motivates politicians to reward voters’ attention with policy favours. Voters have more influence on issues that they follow closely, which can result in extreme policies of pork-barrel politics. Third, we study how these patterns react if the detail of available information increases (for example, because of the diffusion influence of the internet), if the cost of information drops, or if shocks hit the economy. We illustrate the general implications of these results with two examples below. 

Political extremism 

Selective attention leads to more extreme policies and empowers minorities. Consider the conflict over a single policy dimension: the level of income tax. Here, our question is which voters are more attentive, and hence more influential. Relative to a full-information landscape, costly attention amplifies the effects of voters’ preference intensity and dampens the effects of a group’s size on policy outcomes. A group can have high policy stakes (and hence high attention) for one of two reasons: because its preferences differ from the rest of the population (making it an extremist group), or because it is small in size (so political candidates can afford to neglect it). Thus, minorities and extremists tend to be more attentive and more influential in the political process, compared to full-information voters. This moves chosen policies closer to the position desired by extremist voters or smaller groups, compared to the full-information benchmark. In other words, selective attention acts like an amplifier of how much voters care about an issue.

The prediction that extremists and minorities are more informed and attentive is consistent with evidence from survey data. First, voters with more extreme partisan preferences or with more polarised policy views are more informed about the policy positions of presidential candidates (Palfrey and Poole 1987) and members of Congress (Lauderdale 2013). Second, they also consume more media, from blogs to TV, radio, and newspapers (Ortoleva and Snowberg 2015). Third, ethnic minorities are generally more informed about racial issues (Carpini and Keeter 1996).

Divisive issues

Selective attention steers the electorate’s focus toward issues on which voters disagree. Consider multi-dimensional policies, where voters have to pay attention to several policy instruments and not just one. Concerning issues on which everyone agrees, voters expect the policies they desire, seeing low stakes and showing low attention on issues such as spending on the justice system or on defense. On the other hand, information about spending that benefits only a small group will be high – particularly amongst the potential beneficiaries – not only because these policies provide significant benefits to specific groups, but also because they are opposed by everyone else. This widespread opposition implies that the selected policies are always insufficient from the perspective of the beneficiaries, who thus remain attentive to any changes in the proposals.

The possibility of choosing how much information to collect has detrimental effects, which get worse if the detail of available information increases. If voters can become better informed about the outcomes of policies targeted at very small groups, the potential for disagreement grows, and candidates announce more inefficient policies. In a setting with general public goods and targeted redistribution, the equilibrium is Pareto inefficient: public goods that benefit all are under-provided, general tax distortions affecting everyone are too high, and specific groups are excessively targeted through tax credits or transfers. 

The result – that voters are inattentive to policies on which everyone agrees (such as general public goods or uniform taxes) while paying close attention to divisive issues (such as spending that benefits only some) – is consistent with existing evidence on the content of congressional debates and the focus of US electoral campaigns. By constructing indicators of divisiveness in congress, Ash et al. (2015) show that the speeches of US senators become more divisive during election years, consistent with the idea that voters pay closer attention to more divisive issues. Moreover, Hillygus and Shields (2008) show that divisive issues figure prominently in US presidential campaigns, contrary to the expectation that candidates will try to avoid divisive policy positions in order to win more widespread support. In the words of Fiorina et al. (2006): 

Most citizens want a secure country, a healthy economy, safe neighborhoods, good schools, affordable health care, and good roads, parks, and other infrastructure. These issues do get discussed, of course, but a disproportionate amount of attention goes to issues like abortion, gun control, the Pledge of Allegiance, medical marijuana, and other narrow issues that simply do not motivate the great majority of Americans.”

Concluding remarks

The digital revolution did not increase voters’ information and awareness of the political process; on average, Americans’ public knowledge has not increased relative to the late 1980s (Pew Research Center 2007). But there have been important changes in the distribution of information. Some individuals have become much more informed, others less informed (Prior 2007). Informational asymmetries across issues (what one is informed about) have also become more prominent. This is not good for the functioning of democracy. Even without subtle psychological mechanisms, simply the free choice of information tends to increase the influence of extremist voters and divert attention away from non-controversial general interest policies. 

Because the cost of attention is mainly subjective, it is difficult to design policies that counter these distortions. Even if information were entirely free, we would still find it optimal to disregard most of it and focus our attention on what is more important to us. It may improve public welfare to hide some information and reduce the granularity of what voters can find out. More generally, in an era in which information is almost entirely free, it has become more important to think about how to package it, so as to reduce the scope of harmful informational asymmetries.


Elliott A, M Morelli and R van Weelden (2015), “Election and Divisiveness: Theory and Evidence”, Bocconi University, mimeo.

Fiorina, M, S Adams and J Pope (2006), Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, Yale University Press.

Carpini, M X D and S Keeter (1996), What Americans Know about Politics and Why It Matters, Yale University Press.

Hillygus, D S and T G Shields (2008), The Persuadable Voter: Wedge Issues in Presidential Campaigns, Princeton University Press.

Lauderdale, B E (2013), “Does Inattention to Political Debate Explain the Polarization Gap between the US Congress and Public?”, Public Opinion Quarterly 77(S1): 2-23

Matejka, F and G Tabellini (2015), “Electoral Competition with Rationally Inattentive Voters”, CEPR Discussion Paper 10888.

Ortoleva, P and E Snowberg (2015), “Overconfidence in Political Behavior”, American Economic Review 105(2): 504-35.

Palfrey, T R and K T Poole (1987), “The Relationship between Information, Ideology, and Voting Behavior,” American Journal of Political Science 31(3): 511-530.

Prior, M (2007), Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections, Cambridge University Press.

The Pew Research Center (2007), What Americans Know: 1989-2007, Washington DC.

Sunstein, C (2017), #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, Princeton University Press.

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