Last year, the Democracy Fund made a series of inaugural grants during the 2012 election that experimented with different approaches to informing voters, exposing them to alternative points of view, and reducing the influence of deceptive political communications. CIRCLE (the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement at Tufts University), was asked to evaluate these projects in order to learn more about their reach and influence. The evaluations were conducted by myself and the rest of the CIRCLE team. Two experiments involved disseminating videos online in order to change viewers’ responses to misleading or divisive political rhetoric:
- Flackcheck.org produced video parodies of deceptive campaign ads in order to immunize the public from the deceptions.
- Bloggingheads.tv produced videos featuring civil disagreement with the goal of increasing viewers’ respect for people with different points of view.
Two experiments involved convening selected citizens for some kind of discussion or interaction with peers:
- “Face the Facts” experimented with a variety of different methods for educating and engaging people about key facts, ranging from info-graphics to Google Hangouts. (This experiment was evaluated by Prof. John Gastil and Dave Brinker of Penn State University, on a subcontract from CIRCLE)
- The Healthy Democracy Fund’s “Citizens Initiative Reviews” asked small groups of citizens to make recommendations about pending ballot initiatives in Oregon and disseminated their recommendations to voters through the state’s official voter guide. (evaluated by John Gastil)
Three experiments involved helping or influencing professional journalists or media outlets to produce news that would serve the public better:
- Flackcheck’s “Stand by Your Ad” campaign urged broadcasters to reject deceptive campaign ads and encouraged local stations to run “ad watches”.
- The Columbia Journalism Review’s “Swing States Project” attempted to improve the quality of local media coverage of the election by commissioning local media critics to critique coverage.
- The Center for Public Integrity’s “Consider the Source” provided in-depth reporting on campaign finance issues.
In a series of blog posts over the coming weeks, we will share some of the findings that emerged from these evaluations. We will not focus on which particular interventions were effective, but rather on broad themes that are relevant for anyone who seeks to improve the quality of public engagement during a political campaign. The topics of our blog posts will be: 1. Educating Voters in a Time of Political Polarization 2. Supporting a Beleaguered News Industry 3. How to Reach a Large Scale with High-Quality Messages 4. Tell it Straight? The Advantages and Dangers of Parody 5. Educating the Public When People Don’t Trust Each Other 6. The Oregon Citizens Initiative Review Stay tuned for the first of these six posts which will be coming soon. Peter Levine is the Executive Director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service.