Everything, it seems for the past few weeks, has led to Nov. 6, 2018—midterm election day in the United States. But the people and policies that voters endorse will likely be in place for the other 364 days of the year, too. That’s why it’s crucial for elected officials to understand the needs of their constituents and for constituents to understand what they’re voting for, said David Lazer, a political science and network science professor at Northeastern. The problem is, the current methods for doing so aren’t working.
Traditional town hall-style meetings, in which an elected official or candidate fields questions and comments from a roomful of people who were motivated enough to show up, don’t facilitate the kind of in-depth conversation about politics that’s essential for an informed electorate, said Lazer, a Distinguished professor of Political Science and Computer and Information Science and co-director of the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks.
What does work, he and his colleagues found, are online question-and-answer forums. Lazer and his colleagues designed a town hall-style online platform on which randomly-invited constituents could ask questions to elected officials, and the politician could respond in real time.
Lazer and his colleagues invited constituents from several congressional districts in the state of Washington to participate in online forums with their respective congresspeople, all of whom volunteered to be part of the experiment.
The forums were specifically about immigration policy and detainee policy, Lazer said. Constituents who joined in the online forum were given “two to three pages” of background information about the policies beforehand, he said.
In all, Lazer and his colleagues moderated nearly 2,000 anonymous online questions and comments from constituents.
“Across the board we saw very positive results,” Lazer said during a News@Northeastern Q&A broadcast on Facebook Live Monday. “People learned about politics [and] they were more likely to vote.”
The researchers published their findings in a book called Politics with the People: Building a Directly Representative Democracy.
Here are some of the key takeaways from Lazer’s research and his discussion on Facebook Live.
The researchers’s online town hall-style meetings attracted a more representative sampling of voters than traditional town hall-style meetings.
The people who generally show up to town hall meetings held in standard-issue municipal buildings are “generally folks on the extreme ends” of the political spectrum, Lazer said. This means that elected officials are responsive to their more extreme constituents, while the more moderate viewpoints are overlooked, he said.
The people who logged on to the online discussion “were actually more representative of potential voters than actual voters are,” Lazer said, adding that voters tend to be more polarized, whiter, older, and more highly-educated than the body of people actually eligible to vote. Hosting the meeting online meant more people could afford to join in; they didn’t have to figure out transportation to an event that would also take up several hours of their time.
People were civil—very civil.
Over the course of their experiment, Lazer and his colleagues moderated nearly 2,000 anonymous online questions and comments on hot-button issues such as immigration policy and detainee policy. Not once did they have to exclude any that were vulgar or abusive.
In an online environment in which provocative comments tend to be the norm, this level of civility stands out, but isn’t an anomaly, Lazer said. That’s because the goal of these town hall-style meetings was to discuss and better understand policy issues, not to get attention.
“On Twitter a lot of the disagreement that occurs is because there are multiple benefits to conflict. Oftentimes you see people who express outrageous points of view who then garner attention and followers,” Lazer said. People then respond to those comments as a way of signaling to their followers that they either agree or disagree. In either case, it’s about “pounding on your chest” more than participating in a discussion—the direct opposite of people’s goals in the online town halls, he said.
New technology is changing politics.
Candidates are using social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to reach voters even outside their constituencies, whether to raise money or spread a message, Lazer said.
The online town hall-style meetings Lazer and his colleagues tested are another way technology could change the way we do democracy. Extending the use of these platforms to organize town meetings could help politicians speak directly with their constituents in a more productive way. These online platforms also provide voters with the means to learn about pertinent issues in a more robust way.
“It’s one of those things that not so many years ago would’ve seemed like science fiction,” he said, “but this is indeed how we can do democracy today.”