In a new study of the Internet’s impact on pol­i­tics, North­eastern pro­fessor David Lazer and his col­leagues found that online town hall meet­ings increase con­stituents’ trust and approval of mem­bers of Con­gress. The ground­breaking study also found that online delib­er­a­tive forums are likely to sway swing voters in favor of the law­maker holding the online forum. Read the full study.

Addi­tion­ally, Lazer and his col­leagues found that online town halls attract people with demo­graphics not tra­di­tion­ally engaged in pol­i­tics. These events also make people more likely to vote, talk pol­i­tics and per­suade others to vote.

Funded largely by the National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion as part of the “Con­necting to Con­gress” project, the research was facil­i­tated by the Con­gres­sional Man­age­ment Foun­da­tion. Lazer and his team con­ducted 21 online town hall meet­ings with 12 rep­re­sen­ta­tives and one sen­ator, and sur­veyed ran­domly selected par­tic­i­pants over the course of sev­eral months between 2006 and 2008. The topics dis­cussed included immi­gra­tion and detainee policy.

The role of the Internet in pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics has received much schol­arly and pop­ular atten­tion, but little has been done to under­stand its power to trans­form the rela­tion­ship between mem­bers of Con­gress and their con­stituents,” said Lazer, asso­ciate pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence and com­puter sci­ence at North­eastern, and director of the Pro­gram on Net­worked Gov­er­nance at Har­vard. “Our find­ings will hope­fully be the cat­a­lyst for a more mean­ingful and effec­tive engage­ment between law­makers and the public.”

The online town halls’ power to increase polit­ical dis­course among voters extended well beyond the forums’ par­tic­i­pants. Con­stituents of these online forums were more likely to engage in dis­cus­sions with others about pol­i­tics and policy issues and per­suade them to vote similarly.

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,” added Lazer.

In addi­tion to the NSF grant, the study also received funding from Harvard’s Ash Insti­tute for Demo­c­ratic Gov­er­nance and Inno­va­tion. The authors also include Michael Neblo of Ohio State Uni­ver­sity, Kevin Ester­ling of Uni­ver­sity of California-​​Riverside, and Kathy Gold­smith of the Con­gres­sional Man­age­ment Foundation.