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Information-processing by individual political actors. The determinants of exposure, attention and action in a comparative perspective

Final Report Summary - INFOPOL (Information-processing by individual political actors. The determinants of exposure, attention and action in a comparative perspective)

The ERC project INFOPOL (2012-2017, with PI Stefaan Walgrave, University of Antwerp) focused on how politicians read society. The point of departure was that (1) we did not know a lot about how politicians inform themselves about societal problems, about available solutions and about public opinion with regard to the problems and solutions an (2) that knowing how politicians select and process societal information is important from a democratic perspective. We believe politicians should be responsive to societal signals, they are supposed to represent society and, in order to be able to represent, they need to be informed. In other words, information selection and processing is a precondition for democratic representation.
INFOPOL empirically examined information selection and processing by individual, elected politicians in three countries: Belgium, Canada and Israel. These countries were chosen because of their widely diverging political systems—yet all are liberal, parliamentary, representative democracies. Ours was, in other words, a most different systems design looking for patterns that apply across the three countries, enabling generalization to unobserved cases. The research strategy basically consisted of extensive interviewing, surveying and experimenting with individual elites in the three countries. INFOPOL had two rounds of data collection, one in 2013 and one in 2015. Apart from the methods requiring consent of the politicians themselves, an extensive content analysis of the deeds and discourse of individual politicians was accomplished. In 2013, 120 politicians participated in INFOPOL, in 2015 the total number was 410.
INFOPOL found that politicians are overwhelmed with information. There is too much information reaching them, from many different sources, and politicians wrestle with trying to limit the information they have to attend to. That makes that information selection, maybe more than actual information processing, is a key task politicians perform. The mere act of prioritizing some bits of information above others is an act of representation that impacts what will be passed on further down the chain. In other words, attention is a valuable and, above all, scarce resource in politics and merely getting politicians’ attention is a tough barrier for all kinds of groups who want to influence politicians.
Knowing that politicians are extremely selective in what they attend to, the key question, and the matter INFOPOL has invested most research resources in, is what kind of information sources and what sort of information is managing to attract which politicians’ attention.
With regard to the information sources, especially the role of the mass media has struck us. We knew already that mass media were an important information provider but we were surprised by the pervasiveness of mass media in politicians’ information menu. The media not only provide information about general current affairs, but even for the things politicians care about strongly, the issues they are specialized in for example, media are crucial information providers. Very often, the media form the source of inspiration that triggers politicians to undertake formal political action.
In terms of the information content, the applicability of the information to politicians’ task is key. Information about politics is valued highly—in a sense politicians’ learn about themselves via external data sources—but so is negative and conflictual information. Information that puts the responsibility of politicians at stake is especially valued as well. Their selection of information is clearly strategic as politicians, for example, highly value information about issues they are specialized in or that their party is considered to have a strong reputation on.
Not all politicians have the same goals, though, and they are member of different parties. Goals and party membership, but also personal features such as specialization and age, have an impact of the information selection of elected politicians. For instance, politicians who are party warriors—these are the ones who play the attack and defense game—rely more on media information than politicians who consider themselves to be first of all policy makers.