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Internet Town Halls


Public Favors Internet Town Hall Meetings

UC Riverside political scientist Kevin Esterling is part of a research team that finds online meetings increase constituent trust and perception of lawmakers.

(October 26, 2009)

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Personal interaction with a member of Congress, even online, has a significant and positive impact on a constituent’s views of the official and their likelihood to become more politically engaged, according to research conducted by the Congressional Management Foundation and a team of academic partners that includes UC Riverside political scientist Kevin Esterling. The findings are detailed in the report, “Online Town Hall Meetings: Exploring Democracy in the 21st Century,” which was released today in Washington, D.C.

Conducting online meetings with constituents offers members of Congress a flexible tool for communication in addition to the traditional in-person meetings, tele-town halls and newsletters, said Beverly Bell, executive director of the Congressional Management Foundation. “Our research shows that people like hearing from – and feeling heard by – their representatives in all formats, including online.”

The team conducted 21 online town hall meetings to determine whether the Internet offers opportunities to bring citizens closer to their representatives in Congress as part of a project funded by the National Science Foundation and the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation. The researchers were from the Congressional Management Foundation, UC Riverside, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Northeastern University, and The Ohio State University.

“The participants in our study were nearly unanimous in their opinion that having the chance to discuss issues online with their member of Congress was important for democracy,” UCR’s Esterling said. “Participants were especially appreciative that the sessions were unscripted, and required the member to answer questions directly rather than through staff.”

There has been tremendous interest in the role of the Internet in presidential politics, noted David Lazer, director of the Program on Networked Governance at Harvard University and associate professor of political science and computer science at Northeastern University. “This report helps fill the void on how the Internet can also transform the relationship between sembers of Congress and their constituents.”

Citizens were selected at random by a research firm to assure a representative sample and then were assigned to a control group or to participate in the sessions. Each group was surveyed a number of times over the course of several months to determine changes in behavior and attitudes over time.

“The study design is a lot like the experimental design for a new drug, where some participants were randomly assigned to a discussion session and some were assigned to a control group that did not attend a session,” Esterling explained. “Randomly assigning some study participants to this kind of ‘treatment’ and ‘control’ was crucial for us to pin down the causal effects of the sessions on citizens’ attitudes.”

Key findings of the report were:

- The online town hall meetings increased constituents’ approval of the member of Congress. Members experienced an average net approval rating jump of 18 points. There were similar increases in trust and perceptions of personal qualities such as hardworking and accessible. The sessions also increased constituents’ approval of the member’s position on the issue discussed.

- The town hall meetings attracted a diverse array of people. These sessions were more likely than traditional venues to attract people from demographics not traditionally engaged in politics and people frustrated with the political system.

- The sessions were extremely popular with constituents. A remarkable 96 percent of participants said they would like to be included in similar events in the future.

- The meetings increased engagement in politics. Participants in the sessions were more likely to vote and were dramatically more likely to follow the election and to attempt to persuade other citizens how to vote.

- The online sessions increased the probability of voting for the member of Congress. The probability of voting for their representative was 49 percent for control subjects and 56 percent for people who participated in a session, with a particularly dramatic impact on swing voters.

- The positive results were seen in small and large sessions. Most of the sessions were conducted by representatives with small groups of 15 to 25 constituents. To test the scalability, the team conducted one session with a senator and nearly 200 people. The same positive results occurred.

- The discussions in the town hall meetings were of high quality. By standards of deliberative quality, such as use of accurate facts to support arguments and respect for alternative points of view, the discussions were of a very high quality.

“Many people are concerned about the civility of public discourse, and in particular about the level of civility in online exchanges,” Esterling said. “Our study shows that it is possible to design an online platform for town halls that creates a civil atmosphere. Out of 21 sessions and hundreds of comments from citizens to their representatives, we did not have to screen a single comment.”

Members of Congress are always looking for ways to stay connected back home, Bell said of the Congressional Management Foundation. “It only makes sense that they would turn to the Internet for its almost limitless networking capabilities, the same way other people are using it to stay in touch with far-flung friends and family,” she concluded.

A full copy of the report is available at http://www.cmfweb.org .

The University of California, Riverside (www.ucr.edu) is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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