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Congressional websites muddy stands on issues

Congressional websites obscure lawmakers’ policy preferences, and lack input from constituents, according to a new study on the Internet’s impact on politics conducted by Northeastern University professor David Lazer and his colleagues.

The researchers interviewed 100 congressional staff members who oversaw their office’s websites in 2006, and analyzed all House and Senate websites based on criteria developed in collaboration with the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to improving Congress. Read the study here.

The National Science Foundation funded the research, as part of its “Connecting to Congress” project.

Lazer and his colleagues found that many congressional websites don’t identify where a politician stands on hot button issues such as abortion, gay marriage and health care, and go so far as to exclude lawmakers’ party affiliations.

It’s a tactic that promotes political survival, but fails to uphold democratic values, said Lazer.

Lazer, an associate professor of political science and computer science, noted that voters often end up electing candidates without knowing their true positions on critical issues.

He acknowledged that legislators might tailor their messages to particular audiences on Facebook or Twitter, but explained, “The Internet often does not allow for targeting messages to micro segments of your audience. So, if you’re going to post stuff that wins more votes, rather than loses votes, it has to be bland.”

The study also found that the general public is rarely asked what features they like to see on their representatives’ websites, whether through online surveys or focus groups.

It’s a troubling sign for Lazer, who said communication between legislators and constituents is key to the health of our democracy.

“One would hope that the Internet would facilitate a robust discourse between representatives and citizens, and that the official websites would be an opportunity for representatives to spur and engage in that discussion,” said Lazer. “But we’re not really seeing that.”

Lazer’s coauthors on the paper, titled “Improving Congressional Websites,” included Kevin Esterling, an associate professor of political science at the University of California—Riverside, and Michael Neblo, an assistant professor of political science at Ohio State University.

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