June 1, 2021 - 3:47pm

Spend any time on Twitter and you may come to suspect that some of the most politically engaged individuals have the least idea what they’re talking about. 

Listen to the Question Time audience or a radio show phone-in and you may reach a similar conclusion. 

Well, now there’s proof. A new paper in a forthcoming issue of Electoral Studies presents hard evidence that a high level of attention to politics is no guarantee of accuracy. The authors, Roosmarijn de Geus and Jane Green of Nuffield College, Oxford explore the complicated relationship between knowledge and attention by asking people whether nor not they’ve heard about various new political parties, like the Brexit Party.

The ingenious bit is that some of the parties are fictitious. For instance, as well as the Brexit Party, respondents were asked about an entirely made-up organisation called the Remain Party. Yet, despite its non-existence, 37% of respondents claimed to have heard about it.

This compares to 19% recognition for the Women’s Equality Party, which does in fact exist. 

But isn’t there a straightforward explanation for these mistakes, which is that a lot of people have more than politics to bother about — and thus aren’t paying much attention? They’ll have heard others drone on about Remain — so, perhaps, when asked about a Remain Party, they simply guess that one must exist. 

But here’s the twist: increased attention to politics doesn’t necessarily improve the accuracy of people’s answers. Indeed, among the ‘low knowledge’ group of respondents, those who pay the most attention to politics are more likely to say that they’ve heard of a fictitious party than those who pay less attention. It would seem that a little knowledge is indeed a dangerous thing. 

It could be especially dangerous for pollsters if their surveys are targeting people with high levels of political attention on the assumption that they know more about politics. This can’t be assumed at all. 

Aside from accuracy, there’s also the question as to whether the news agenda leaves a lasting impression on those who pay the most attention to it. 

For instance, a recent YouGov survey found that the Downing Street refurbishment saga only had an effect on the voting intention on the high attention group. The rest of the population didn’t seem to care. As it turned out, the sudden narrowing of opinion polls around this time didn’t last for long.

Could it be that these short-term shifts in public opinion are as frothy as the news agenda that drives them?