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.