2.1 Introduction
2.2 Putting ‘information' in rational perspective
2.3 Why the Internet matters to political journalism
2.4 Individuals online: usage and impacts
2.5 Groups online: usage and impacts
2.6 Politicians online: usage and impacts
2.7 Media online: usage and impacts
2.8 ‘Ya say ya wanna a revolution?'
2.9 Further study

Submitted by:
A.M. Burton

Submitted to:
School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada),

in part completion of the requirements for the

Master of Journalism

September 2000

:: Research Base



2.2 Putting 'information' in a 'rational' perspective

Information is vital to democracy because, ideally, it is what voters use to decide for whom to vote.

Almost 45 years ago, in his seminal work An Economic Theory of Democracy, Anthony Downs (1957) remarried politics and economics in seeking to discover what political decision-making is like when uncertainty exists and information in obtainable only at a cost. Towards this goal, Downs analyzed the economics of becoming informed, that is, the rational utilization of scarce resources to obtain data for decision-making.1

Downs eschewed previous economic models based on perfect information (available to all in unlimited amounts at zero cost) instead proposing a model more firmly situated in reality:

... in the real world, regardless of how many data are available, the amount a rational decision-maker can employ for any one decision is strictly limited because (1) the human mind, even when abetted by calculating machines, can encompass only a limited amount of information at once, and (2) assimilating and evaluating data take some time, which is especially scarce in decision-making because of the pressure of events.2

Downs proposed that voters create a comprehensive system of acquiring information based on selection principles in accord with their own preferences. These selection principles are comprehensive enough to enable individual choice and decision-making.3 The information-seeker invests resources in procuring data only until the rate of return from seeking and processing information equals its cost. At that point, assuming decreasing returns or increasing costs or both, the voter has enough information and makes a decision. The size of the overall investment in obtaining political information is determined by three factors:

(1) the value to the individual of making a correct decision;
(2) the relevance of the information to the decision at hand; and,
(3) the cost of data.4

Decision-making is a process which consumes time and other scarce resources; hence economy must be practiced in determining how many resources shall be employed in it. This fact forces decision-makers to select only part of the total available information for use in making choices. 5

In an uncertain world, Downs argued, there is great pressure on the rational voter to minimize the quantity of scarce resources he or she uses to obtain political information.6 In fact, for many citizens, acquisition of most political data is irrational, even during election campaigns.7

In general, it is irrational to be politically well informed because the low returns from data simply do not justify their cost in time and other scarce resources. Therefore many voters do not bother to discover their true views before voting, and most citizens are not well enough informed to influence directly the formulation of those policies that affect them.8

With stunning prescience, Downs' theory has perhaps never rung more true than in the information overload of the 21st century. In the words of noted London School of Economics professor of government Patrick Dunleavy (1991), Downs' "An Economic Theory of Democracy is explicitly about an information-rich world where assembling, screening and evaluating the mass of data transmitted is a costly undertaking."9

Information is a valuable commodity within a public choice model of political decision-making. Simply, public choice is defined as the economic study of non-market decision making, or simply the application of economics to political science. The basic behavioral postulate of public choice, consistent with liberal economics, is that people are rational, egoistic, individuals who seek to maximize their preferences or utility. From this perspective, public choice is situated within the stream of philosophy extending from Thomas Hobbes and Benedict Spinoza, and within the political science of James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville.10

The most obvious, and perhaps important, manifestation of non-market decision-making in a liberal democratic system is voting.

'Democracy' may be best understood through its Greek roots: demos, meaning the 'citizen body' and cracy, meaning 'the rule of.' In a liberal democracy, citizens rule at one remove from executive decision-making. Citizens exercise their sovereignty in electing representatives.11 According to Schumpeter's "democratic method," representative democracy is "the institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people's vote."12 The result of this competition transfers public decision authority from individual constituency voters to elected representatives (Members of Parliament in the Canadian context). In this delegation the Member of Parliament, as both representative and legislator, is granted the formal right to decide in the public interest with legitimate public authority.

Further, according to Sartori, in a liberal democracy voters must have an expectation of alternation in elected public office holders and agreed upon rules for open competition in acquiring the right to decide.13 This competition is managed through an electoral system, which is essentially a set of unchanged election rules under which one or more successive elections are conducted in a given democracy.

In the democratic process, delegated decision-making authority is held publicly accountable in the first degree within rational codes based on the rule and spirit of law and partisan debate. Ultimate recall power rests in the potential of collective acts of electoral retribution, that is electoral defeat and loss of office.14

Interest groups constitute some of the largest, longest-lasting and most active forms of political participation in liberal democracies. Interest groups are characterized by four characteristics:

(1) Interest groups associate various types of actors, including individuals, firms and other organizations and mobilize them to undertake some form of collective action;
(2) voluntary membership;
(3) dependence on member involvement to actively support group activities; and,
(4) a narrow focus of concerns, mobilized around single issues or restricted areas of social life and public policy.15

The interests and beliefs that lead people to form or join organizations to lobby politicians for symbolic or material concessions cannot easily be classified. There is an immense variety of interest groups, and few if any significant social interests remain chronically unorganized.16

Throughout much of public choice literature, information is presented in highly simplified fashion. Generally speaking, it has largely been assumed that the more information an individual has, the closer she may be to making subjective estimations of four key variables associated with belonging to a group. These variables are (1) the collective benefits generated by group activity; (2) the probability of individual membership decisions influencing group effectiveness; (3) the costs of membership in the group; and, (4) the level of selective incentives.17 However, according to Dunleavy,

The notion that in such situations all information helps people to appreciate the 'actual' level of such critical choice variables as benefits, costs and probabilities is simply a vain effort to disguise the extreme difficulty in practice of determining these objective levels.18

In addition to Dunleavy's concern regarding information overload, Eichenberger and Serna (1996) argue the traditional view of information, that it improves individual knowledge and decreases estimation (voting) errors, applies only to what they characterize as clean information. Dirty information, on the other hand, enlarges individuals' estimation errors. While individual errors are unsystematic and randomly distributed, they do have systematic effects at the aggregate level.19

In contrast to traditional economics of information, Eichenberger and Serna's approach delegitimizes any assumption of an unequivocal relationship between the amount of information available and the quality of an individual's decisions.

Of course, an inflow of information (e.g. through political propaganda) increases the amount of information available. However, it is costly for individuals to assess the new information's quality. Dirty information, which is irrelevant or even wrong, increases information costs by diluting the relevant information. The more dirty information is available, the higher the cost to isolate clean information and the larger are the individual estimation errors.20

In summary, political information is all information that is relevant to an individual voter's decision, not only as to candidate choice (or whether to vote at all), but also in joining groups. A voter's decision represents her decision to participate in a larger group, such as a special interest group, a political party or a voter movement.

The news media (as will be discussed in the next section) have historically played a critical role in providing voters with information needed to make decisions, because they offer an economical labour-saving means of becoming informed on key issues. The quality and credibility of sources of voter information, and the relative costs associated with accessing these sources, are of paramount importance in a liberal democracy.

Foot Notes

1.     Downs, 1957, p. 207.
2.     Downs, 1957, p. 210-211.
3.     Downs, 1957, p. 213.
4.     Downs, 1957, p. 215-216.
5.     Downs, 1957, p. 218-219.
6.     Downs, 1957, p. 220.
7.     Downs, 1957, p. 239.
8.     Downs, 1957, p. 259.
9.     Dunleavy, 1991, p. 251-252.
10.   Mueller, 1989, p. 1-2.
11.   Dunleavy and O'Leary, 1987, p. 4-5.
12.   Schumpeter, 1987, p. 269.
13.   Sartori, 1975, p. 186.
14.   Lijphart, 1994, p. 13.
15.   Dunleavy, 1991, p. 14-15.
16.   Dunleavy, 1991, p. 15-16.
17.   Dunleavy, 1991, p. 53.
18.   Dunleavy, 1991, p. 53-54.
19.   Eichenberger and Serna, 1996, p. 137.
20.   Eichenberger and Serna, 1996, p. 138.

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