Information Costs and Politics: How We Deal With Vast Amounts of Political Information

Source: Capital Media Solutions. “8 Social Media Strategies for Influential Political Campaigns.”

In this age of never-ending news, the amount of information bombarding our senses can feel overwhelming. There is so much to keep up with when it comes to politics. Sometimes, people will respond by simply tuning it out. When elections roll around, the sheer volume of races up for a vote can make sifting through all the relevant information — or even finding it — seem like an insurmountable task. That’s not even counting non-political influences taking up people’s time, such as careers, social outings, and hobbies (at least the non-political ones).

The reality of humans’ mental and time limitations means that there is only so much any of us can learn or search for. Even those who consistently consume political information have to rely on some multiple methods to access the knowledge they want besides simply researching it. Due to our limitations, there are information costs to consuming politics. Information costs are what we spend in order to get said information. This could refer to money, but it especially refers to time and mental effort. The time you spend to research a candidate could be spent on many other things, including other political information. The taxing of your mind in evaluating candidates is an effort that could be used on something else. There is always a tradeoff.

To counteract information costs, we knowingly (and unknowingly) create mental shortcuts that lessen the amount of time and thinking needed to gain access. The most prominent of these are known as heuristics, rules of thumb that allow quick and efficient judgments on whatever is in question. Not everyone uses the same heuristics, but there are some very common ones that will be discussed in today’s post. Three major categories of political players and how information costs relate to them will be talked about— politicians, the media, and advocacy/interest groups.

Candidates for office need a clear, concise message to persuade voters to come out and cast a ballot for them — or against an opponent. Officeholders need a clear, concise message to convince the public of the need for certain bills, programs, and so on — or to defeat an opponent’s program. Long-winded and in-depth arguments are too much for a lot of people to consume, whether it is due to time, lack of interest, or an inability to understand a topic’s nuances.

Therefore, politicians have a variety of different tools at their disposal to circumvent these issues and get into the hearts and minds of voters. Effective heuristics are critical for support. The most obvious one is party affiliation. Many voters will always vote for Republicans or for Democrats no matter who it is, or at least will do so most of the time. They will see “Republican” next to Donald Trump’s name or “Democrat” next to whoever becomes the 2020 Democratic nominee for president and “know” that that is the “correct” choice to vote for come election time. Although both parties have differences within themselves and some similarities with each other, there are still some general stances on political issues that one can usually expect from a party label.

It is a similar case for ideology. Fewer voters are responsive to ideological cues than partisan cues, but there are still plenty of them who care deeply about how conservative or liberal a politician is. Such heuristics that politicians use to describe themselves in campaigning material include a “constitutional conservative,” “strong progressive,” and so on. Some voters may debate whether those are “truthful” labels, but others will see those cues and find that those candidates or officeholders are the “correct” choice. The latter group won’t spend the time or effort to research whether those candidates are “true” conservatives, liberals, progressives, socialists, etc., therefore limiting their information costs.

One other major heuristic is the stance on a defining issue. Some voters care solely or almost exclusively about healthcare, immigration, abortion, or some other policy. A politician can use their stances on those issues to signal to voters that are in agreement that they are the choice those voters want. Thus, many of those voters won’t feel the need to research candidates further, and they decrease their information costs.

Limiting information costs is perhaps most apparent in our choices for the consumption of political news. The media exists explicitly to bridge information gaps where it is often impossible to do so otherwise. They have access to various sources that most people outside of media have no access to or would have a much more difficult time getting to. Media also has the power to package news into quick soundbites, succinct visuals, and commentary to bring to the masses that the public can easily consume.

The desire to limit information costs is partly responsible for the exponential increase in outlets — and echo chambers — over the past few decades. Many people on the left (liberal) side of the political spectrum will rely on sources like MSNBC, CNN, Huffington Post, Daily Kos, etc. to tell them information, while many people on the right (conservative) side will go to sources like Fox News, Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh, The Blaze, etc. It takes us all less time and effort to consume news, no matter where it originates, from sources that are more agreeable to our own politics. Oftentimes, we shut out information that contradicts our existing viewpoint, which in turn lessens information costs because we are not spending that extra time or effort mulling it over.

Interest (or advocacy) groups also have a significant influence in terms of limiting information costs. They have an explicit stance on an issue and usually have a general ideological preference. Many of these groups have “scorecards” that they use to rate politicians in local, state, and federal offices to signal to voters that want such information what they “should” think about them. Scores from groups such as the National Rifle Association and Planned Parenthood are going to give a mostly clear indication of what a candidate’s viewpoints on gun ownership and abortion are, respectively. Instead of researching specific stances (and therefore increasing information costs), voters can simply go to these scorecards to see how politicians rate on the issues they care about.

It isn’t just voters’ information costs that are being decreased by interest groups. Officeholders have a lot of use for these groups as well, usually in the form of lobbyists. Even when the group and officeholders are largely in agreement on issues, public policy is inherently complicated. These lobbyists can bridge a lot of that gap by informing officeholders about the intricacies of policies that they would not know otherwise. This, in turn, helps politicians in their crafting of legislation by accounting for those nuances.

The ways that people limit information costs are useful and can be positive, but they can also be abused by those who have a vested interest in doing so. Politicians, media, and interest groups can choose which information to show and withhold to voters and the general public in an effort to influence opinion, and they have their own biases to contend with. It could also mean further consolidation of echo chambers if people spend less money, time, and mental effort taking in information that contradicts what they already believe.

We all have to use shortcuts to limit information costs to some extent, as we all only have so much time, money, interest, and mental effort to expend. Yet the shortcomings of said shortcuts must also be accounted for. There is still the possibility of being misinformed or not knowing critical information that we could find through other means. Even in our attempts to limit information costs, we can incur other costs such as misinformation if we aren’t careful enough.

Senior Page Editor - Sayfie Review, Assistant Staff Writer - Ballotpedia (my views do not express those of my employers), M.A. in Political Science

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