The Future Of The Town Hall Is Online

It’s an experience that’s become all too familiar: You log in to Facebook and scan an elected official’s most recent post, tentatively optimistic about the conversation it might’ve inspired. But as soon as you scroll down to the comments section, you realize your hopes were unfounded. The “conversation” has devolved into a cesspool of partisan name-calling and other insults.

“People don’t typically go to places like Facebook to have substantive conversations — the platform just isn’t conducive to that,” said political scientist Kevin Esterling. “But that doesn’t mean reasoned discussion can’t happen on such a platform. The challenge lies in designing a space that induces people to think and become informed before they comment.”

Esterling, a professor of public policy and political science at the University of California, Riverside, would know. For the past 15 years, he’s partnered with the nonpartisan, nonprofit Congressional Management Foundation, or CMF, advising members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate on how best to communicate with their constituents online.

Esterling said over time, he and two of his collaborators, Michael Neblo of The Ohio State University and David Lazer of Northeastern University, have witnessed a growing disconnect between elected officials and their constituencies. In recent years, the disconnect has reached a crescendo, manifesting in the form of low Congressional approval ratings, partisan polarization, and a pendulum swing toward populism.

The researchers chart these challenges to democracy — and introduce a potential new way forward — in their recently released book, “Politics With the People” (Cambridge University Press). According to the trio, a major contributor to the American people’s discontent is a lack of “meaningful avenues” for constituents to engage effectively with their representatives as districts have grown in size.

“Our thinking is that if we can use interactive technologies to create new ways for citizens to have a better connection with their government, it might lessen some of the anger and dissatisfaction they’re feeling,” he added.

The researchers tested their hypothesis by designing an online, webinar-style platform that mimicked the format of a more traditional town hall. With funding from the National Science Foundation’s Digital Government Program, they kicked off their first series of 19 online town halls in 2006, inviting members of the House from 12 congressional districts to discuss a controversial domestic policy issue — immigration reform — with their constituents. Prior to each session’s start, participants were given high-quality, unbiased informational materials about the topic to be discussed.

“Constituents were free to ask any questions and make any comments they chose, provided the questions and comments remained on topic,” the researchers said of the sessions’ structure. After questions had been typed and inputted, the session’s participating elected official would orally read and address them as a captionist transcribed the responses in real time.  

Esterling described the study’s findings as pleasantly surprising. First, and perhaps most importantly, participants who showed up for the online sessions represented a broader — and more accurate — cross-section of eligible voters than actual voters, with the sessions proving particularly attractive to younger and lower-income participants, nonpartisans, racial minorities, and women.

Second, the constituents who participated in the sessions gained more knowledge than those constituents who were randomly assigned to a comparison group and didn’t participate in a town hall. Moreover, in surveys conducted four months after the sessions, participants reported being more likely to vote and more likely to vote for officials who they felt had engaged them substantively.

As for one of the more shocking discoveries? Out of the nearly 2,000 comments the researchers processed throughout the series, none had to be filtered out due to incivility.

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