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NICEP 2023-12: Red herrings: A theory of bad politicians hijacking media attention



Politicians are sometimes accused of sending “red herrings”, irrelevant information meant to distract their audience from other information. When do they succeed in fooling voters? How is this affected by the media? This paper proposes a model of election with red herring. An incumbent running for re-election may send an irrelevant ”tale” to distract voters from a scandal. Some politicians may simply enjoy telling irrelevant tales, making it difficult for voters to recognize red herrings. Red herrings can thus be ”successful” in that the incumbent is re-elected despite the scandal. Equilibrium characterization sheds light on two non-trivial results. First, the game sometimes has multiple equilibria: society may coordinate on equilibria with no or some successful red herring through a self-fulfilling social norm of tale-telling. However, high media attention to tales may discipline scandal-free politicians due to voter suspicion of tales, leaving a unique equilibrium with no successful red herring. A dynamic extension introduces feedbacks between the pool of politicians and media attention. Polar cases in which red herring is predicted to increase over time or on the contrary disappear are highlighted. A second extension shows that voter polarization is predicted to have ambiguous effects on politician discipline and thereby on screening.

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Margot Belguise



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Posted on Friday 21st July 2023

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