Washington, Mar 25 : Researchers at University of Southern California have challenged the long-held belief on information manipulation, i.e. knowing more than anybody else is the key to influence and have shown how ignorance could be beneficial at a certain level in controlling public opinion.
Economists Isabelle Brocas and Juan D. Carrillo have presented a real-life situation, in which all parties have access to the same information, but one party still manages to control public opinion.
For instance, a pharmaceutical company such as Merck may be obliged to make public the findings of all studies related to a new drug. After the preliminary trials confirming no short-term side effects the company may opt for not performing follow-up trials before releasing the drug on the market.
"Optimally, you want to provide enough information so the other party reaches a certain level of confidence, but stop once you reach that level. Otherwise, it may be the case that more information causes the confidence level to go down," explained Brocas.
This is the first of its kind study to thoroughly examine situations in which power comes from controlling the flow of public information, unlike the possession of private information. The researchers explained that there exist secrets or facts deliberately withheld, and there are facts that are unknown to everyone.
"It's not necessary to have extra information. You can induce people to do what you want just by stopping the flow of information or continuing it. That's enough," Brocas said.
Particularly, the party manipulating the flow of information must deliberately choose to remain uninformed as well - which can at times backfire.
The researchers explained through an example saying that the head of a council may cease discussion and introduction of new evidence about, say, whether to continue searching for weapons of mass destruction. Calling for a vote when sentiment seems biased in a certain direction effectively curbs how much all members, including the chairperson, know about the issue at stake.
"Overall, the ability of to control the flow of news and remain publicly ignorant gives the leader some power, which is used to influence the actions of the follower . Our result suggests that the chairperson, the President and media can bias the decision of the committee, electorate and public by strategically restricting the flow of information," wrote the researchers.
The researchers are amidst a follow-up to the study that determines how well individuals intuitively understand the "influence through ignorance" phenomenon.
"We're interested in whether people understand their ability to manipulate information and if they do it optimally," said Brocas.
It was found that competition, supported by media diversity and public sources of research funding, not only induces outlets to release more information but also causes the "influence through ignorance" effect to diminish, and under certain circumstances to vanish.
The study, "Influence Through Ignorance," is published in the current issue of The RAND Journal of Economics.