Information and data manipulation in political economy and household contexts

Oscar David Barrera Rodriguez

Décembre 2020

Ecole d’Economie de Paris (PSE)

Sous la direction de Flore Gubert

Access to information is essential for several reasons. First, it is a way to create knowledge. Economists consider that information has economic value because it allows individuals to make choice that yield higher expected payoffs or expected utility than they would obtain from choices made in the absence of information. Access to information is also essential to the health of democracy. It first ensures that citizens make responsible, informed choices rather than acting out of ignorance. It also serves a “checking function”: having access to information allows citizens to check and to pass judgement on the conduct of their elected representatives. While information is easy to create and spread, it is in the meantime easy to manipulate. It is thus crucial that individuals have the skills to evaluate information and its sources critically before incorporating selected information into their knowledge base ad value system. This dissertation deals precisely with these issues, by exploring the role that information has along three axes. It first assesses the effect of an intervention aimed at informing parents about parenting practices on early child development outcomes (Chapter 1). It then investigates the impact of providing fact-checks of statements by candidates on voters’ electoral preferences and perceptions (Chapter 2). It finally explores the link between political ideology and the reliability of homicide data in countries with local conflicts (Chapter 3). Chapter 1 analyzes the impact of information about parenting practices on early childhood development through an experiment consisting in randomly assigning households in rural Nicaragua to receive text messages about child nutrition, health, stimulation or the home environment. The intervention led to significant changes in self-reported parenting practices. However, it did not translate into improvements in children’s cognitive development. When local opinion leaders are randomly exposed to the same text message intervention, parental investments decline and children’s outcomes deteriorate. Since interactions with leaders about parenting practices also decline, the negative effects may have resulted from a boycott or a crowding-out of local leaders. Chapter 2 investigates the effectiveness of fact-checking in countervailing alternative facts, i.e., misleading statements by politicians, on electoral preferences and perceptions. It uses a randomized online experiment during the 2017 French presidential election campaign during which 2,480 French voters were subjected to alternative facts by the extreme-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, and/or corresponding facts about the European refugee crisis from official sources. The results show that: (i) alternative facts are highly persuasive; (ii) fact-checking improves factual knowledge of voters (iii) but it does not affect policy conclusions or support for the candidate; (iv) exposure to facts alone does not decrease support for the candidate, even though voters update their knowledge. Evidence is also consistent with the view that at least part of the effect can be explained by raising salience of immigration issues. Chapter 3 explores the link between political ideology and the reliability of homicide data in countries with local conflicts. It examines this question empirically using a regression discontinuity design (RDD) approach to close-run elections in the context of the Colombian conflict. It first shows that the number of homicides perpetrated by rebel troops increased substantially following close-run elections in municipalities where mayors adopted the incumbent ideology, whereas no impact is observed on the number of homicides perpetrated by any other group. It then provides empirical evidence suggesting that the reported increase in violence is more likely to be due to the alteration of records by official bodies for political purposes than to acts of retaliation by the rebels.