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Coburn and Conservative Media Outlets Criticize NSF-Funded Study of E-Townhalls

- November 10, 2009

Via David Lazer, and some subsequent poking around, I learned of this recent series of events.

In 2006 and 2008, David Lazer, Michael Neblo, and Kevin Esterling conducted some research funded by the National Science Foundation and the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard. The amount of the NSF grant was $161,522. The research was then summarized in a report written by these three authors and Kathy Goldschmidt of the Congressional Management Foundation. The report is here.

Lazer et al. recruited 12 members of House and 1 Senator to participate in a study of on-line townhall meetings. Those members included 7 Democrats and 5 Republicans:

Senator Carl Levin
Representative Earl Blumenauer
Representative Michael Capuano
Representative James Clyburn
Representative Mike Conaway
Representative Anna Eshoo
Representative Jack Kingston
Representative Zoe Lofgren
Representative Don Manzullo
Representative Jim Matheson
Representative David Price
Representative George Radanovich
Representative Dave Weldon

The meetings were mostly held in 2006. The meeting with Levin was held in 2008.

The study is experimental in nature. Constituents of each member were recruited and then randomly assigned to three groups: the control group received no further information; the first treatment group received a two-page document on the issue in question (immigration); the second treatment group received this document and participated in a 30-minute on-line meeting with the member, as well as a 30-minute chat among themselves after the meeting. The meeting with Senator Levin was somewhat different than the meetings with House members: it featured a different issues (detainee policy) and had no chat among participants after the meeting. The conversation with the member was moderated as follows:

bq. We structured the forums so that the moderator and the Member of Congress could speak via voice over IP and constituents could hear them over their computer speakers. The constituents posed written – not oral – questions in real time during the sessions. No questions or answers were compiled in advance. Constituents’ questions were posted to a queue, which was managed by a moderator’s assistant, a member of the research team. Questions were presented orally by the moderator in the order in which they were asked. Only redundant, off-topic, unintelligible, or offensive items were removed, and questions by constituents who had not yet asked were prioritized over those who had. The Member responded orally to the questions, but, to facilitate accessibility for the hearing impaired and to minimize any potential problems participants might have with the audio, we also arranged for the audio to be captioned in real time. Those captions appeared simultaneously on the computer screens of participants.

The moderator was a neutral party, not someone who worked for the member. The authors note that moderation was never necessary:

bq. Our definition of offensive included any questions which included profanity or were abjectly disrespectful. However, this last criterion was theoretical. Not once in the 21 sessions did a question need to be screened for being offensive.

Participants were surveyed before and then one week after the meeting, as well as after the November election. The on-line meeting had several statistically and substantively significant effects:

* The online town halls increased support for participating Members of Congress. Before the meeting, support average 46%; after the meeting, it was 62%. This increase was not due to a reduction in disapproval, but to a reduction in those that had no opinion. Other questions — about trust in the member, or perceptions of the member’s personal qualities — show similar shifts.

* Members persuaded constituents of their position on the issue discussed. Before the meeting, only 37% of participants had any opinion on the member’s position on an issue (20% approved; 17% disapproved). Almost two-third (63%) had no opinion. After the meeting, 58% approved of the member’s position; 17% disapproved; and 23% had no opinion. Moreover, regardless of the position the member took regarding immigration — e.g., regarding felonization, a path to citizenship — townhall meeting participants moved in the direct of the member’s opinion on that issue.

* The town halls increased policy knowledge of constituents on the topic of discussion — by about 10-20 percentage points across a series of items.

* Participation in the town hall increased citizen engagement in politics. In a survey taken after the election, hose who participated in townhalls — all of which occurred before the 2006 election (except the meeting with Levin — were more likely to report interest in the election and attempts to influence others, relative to those who were not randomly assigned to participate in a townhall.

* The sessions were extremely popular with participants. Nearly every participant (95%) agreed that such sessions are “very valuable to our democracy.”

The rest of the report discusses how to organize successful on-line townhalls. The authors then conclude. I note two passages in particular:

bq. Online town halls also save congressional offices time and resources, are practical to implement, can allow them to engage more and different constituents than traditional means, and significantly reduce the difficulty of meeting with constituents for a Member. They required only half an hour of the Member’s time, where the Member simply needed to be some place with a reliable telephone connection. That is, all of the travel time involved in regular town halls was eliminated. The time and resources necessary to arrange the logistics and venue for an in-person town hall were also eliminated, since all were able to participate from the comfort of their own homes or offices. Further, the medium potentially allows individuals who otherwise might not get involved in politics to become engaged. Remarkably, we found many of the demographic groups that tend to be under-represented in politics to be more likely to agree to participate in these sessions. We also found that most of these effects scale up in a larger scale session we ran with a U.S. Senator in 2008, with close to 200 participants. It is certainly practical for a Member to directly reach many thousands of constituents, and tens of thousands over a year at the cost of perhaps a couple of days of his or her time scattered throughout the year…

bq. …While we would certainly not recommend that traditional means of communication with constituents be abandoned, it is clear that these sessions offer a very effective way to reach many constituents and, combined with traditional means of communication, can help further strengthen the ties between Members of Congress and those they represent.

On October 28, Senator Coburn’s website noted a Congressional Management Foundation presentation to congressional staffers on the study’s findings, to take place on October 30.

On October 29, a Wall Street Journal blog post noted Coburn’s displeasure with this study:

bq. Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) is as mad as a tea-party protester that one of the nation’s most august, taxpayer-funded research institutions is bankrolling a seminar for lawmakers on how to stage an “Internet town hall.” The National Science Foundation prides itself on making research grants that lead to path-breaking discoveries. So it seemed odd to Coburn, a physician known as the Senate’s ‘Dr. No,’ that science foundation money was being used to show legislators how to exile angry town-hall mobs to cyberspace.

On October 29, Don Surber at the Daily Mail quoted from a press release, apparently from Coburn:

bq. This Friday, taxpayer funded researchers will brief politicians in Congress on how to improve their approval ratings by avoiding face-to-face townhall meetings with voters.

bq. After receiving tongue lashings from outraged taxpayers across the country at townhall meetings this summer, career politicians no doubt will eagerly listen to this briefing to learn how to avoid direct contact with voters and simultaneously increase their approval ratings. Taxpayers already upset by out of control, wasteful Washington spending would, however, probably be even more upset if they were told that this research was all paid for with tax dollars by the National Science Foundation.

On October 30, Coburn staffers passed out a flyer to those attending the CMF presentation. Lazer posts the flyer here.

Lazer charts how Coburn’s criticisms diffused across the blogosphere:


Lazer surmises that a number of bloggers received a briefing email from Coburn’s office.

In a more recent post, Lazer discusses some of the criticisms raised by the study. Chiefly, critics argued that the study’s purpose was to tell members how to avoid their constituents. Some critics cited the August townhall meetings regarding health care reform as the reason why members would want to avoid their constituents.

Lazer notes that the research was completed well before August 2009. He also notes that the report does not advocate for on-line meetings in lieu of face-to-face meetings. The passage above demonstrates this point. Some critics objected to moderation, which they likened to censorship. Lazer responds:

bq. That said, it is worth noting that the medium is potentially manipulable, and there is nothing to stop someone who is doing an online townhall from excluding difficult questions. (Of course, all communication media are manipulable in some way, so it is not obvious that this is an advantage or disadvantage of online townhalls.) We had a neutral moderator, and included all questions that time would allow, in the order that were posted. This included some that were pretty hostile to the Member. Our assessment (and recommendation) was that these very confrontations made the events more effective, because they reflected the authenticity of the event. In short, the Members approval ratings increased because they had done the right thing.

I am not going to respond substantively to the study or its critics. The study speaks for itself. Lazer’s rebuttal speaks to the critics. I feel that Lazer’s reply is persuasive — and I say that as someone who has never met Lazer, has met Esterling and Neblo only once in passing, has never received an NSF grant, and has done no research in this area.

To me, this tale is really an object lesson in the occasional difficulties of doing scholarly research on a topic that proves to be unexpectedly politicized — even research that seems innocuous at worst and good for democracy at best.