Active Information Seeking, Online Information Availability and Political Trust

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bath
Department Name: Politics, Languages and Int Studies


In spring 2020, with deaths from coronavirus climbing into the thousands and the country in full lockdown, stories started to emerge of people making enormous personal sacrifices: a care worker staying away from her family for weeks on end, living in a caravan outside a nursing home; elderly couples only able to see each other through an outside window; doctors and nurses working long hours in close proximity to contagious patients.
Yet at the same time, a number of senior ministers and officials were found to have breached the rules that they had imposed on others, for example by travelling across the country with known coronavirus symptoms. While some resigned, several key figures kept their jobs and were backed by the government.
Eighteen months and 134,000 deaths later, the conservative party is still ahead in the polls. Where does this leave the issue of political trust?
In an era of "valence politics" (Pattie & Johnston, 2012), has perceived competence overshadowed the importance of personal integrity? With an increasingly fragmented media and abundance of online information sources, how do voters make judgements on political actors and institutions?
The traditional formula for increasing trust has been to increase transparency, yet research to date casts doubt on this solution. A review of the Freedom of Information Act (Hazell, Bourke & Worthy, 2012) found "no evidence that it has improved public understanding of Parliament, or public participation; or that it has increased public trust". Balanced presentation of information may even reduce public confidence in the authorities (Grimmelikhuijsen, 2011).
While the effects of online news exposure have already been well studied (e.g. Stromback & Shehata,2010), less is known about active online information seeking in this context.
The proposed project looks to fill this gap by exploring the relationship between active online information seeking and political trust. The project will particularly focus on the extent to which this relationship is moderated by confirmation bias, framing effects and algorithmic prescribing.
In the context of the rapid growth of voice search, the way that information is filtered by virtual assistants will be considered, as well as the individual-level determinants of online information seeking.
The project supports the ESRC research priority "Trust and global governance in a turbulent age". It also contributes to the proposed future priority area, "New ways of being in a digital age" in relation to the political effects of digitalisation.
The research will be carried out in collaboration with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) and will include a placement at the authority. This partnership approach will not only provide the project with access to a rich source of public website data for analysis but will also allow experiments on online information seeking and trust to be carried out in a real-world setting. The research findings will be used to inform new communications strategies for increasing trust, as well as adding to academic understanding of the issue. The experiments and data analyses will be complemented by online surveys and qualitative methods such as interviews and focus groups. This mixed-methods approach has the advantages that it does not rely on self-reported measures of online activity, which may prove inaccurate, and allows large online data samples to be complemented by individual-level insights.
The research has direct policy applicability, as the findings can inform government strategy for increasing public trust in political institutions and processes.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2381386 Studentship ES/P000630/1 04/10/2021 03/04/2028 Helen Bramah