(This is the seventh in a series of blog posts by CIRCLE, which evaluated several initiatives funded by the Democracy Fund to inform and engage voters during the 2012 election. These posts discuss issues of general interest that emerged from specific evaluations.)
During the 2012 campaign season, AmericaSpeaks and Face the Facts USA worked together to involve citizens in online discussions of important issues facing our country. An evaluation by John Gastil, David Brinker, and Robert Richards of Penn State’s Department of Communication Arts and Sciences finds that people learned a lot about the issue from videos or text explanations. Participants absorbed somewhat less factual information from deliberations but gained more commitment to civil dialogue. When they chose to share what they had learned or experienced, they opted to put comments on websites to share more complex thoughts but used Facebook and Twitter to disseminate simpler points. Conservatives were less satisfied with these particular deliberations.
A participant from one of the Google Hangout discussions who was interviewed by the evaluators reflected on his experience with the dialogue:
“I was really surprised by this experience. I didn’t … expect to get much (or anything) from it. But I actually enjoyed it a lot, and I think it was useful. And I think this sort of experience, with a skilled moderator, could actually be incredibly beneficial for our democracy. There are so many forces acting to the detriment of American democracy, and I can’t really think of ANY forces helping preserve the quality of our democracy. …. I think there’s a lot of potential here, to counteract the pernicious effects of cable news and special interest campaign financing.”
The evaluators also organized face-to-face deliberations for college students on the same issue (the national debt/economy) and randomly varied the style of facilitation. Some facilitators were trained to “focus on rigorous analysis of the facts,” others on “democratic social relationships among the participants,” and a third group was asked to balance the two styles. Preliminary evidence suggests that all three styles were generally successful, but a balanced approach was best for raising the participants’ knowledge of the issue, which, in turn, led them to value the conversation more. Facilitators should focus on keeping a conversation on topic and identifying tradeoffs.
These and other findings are summarized in a report by Gastil, Brinker, and Richards. (The methodology is described below)
All in all, we hope these results prove useful to others who wish to take deliberation to scale using online approaches and face to face discussions and look forward to sharing them widely. Please do be in touch if you are aware of other work in this area and want to share.
The research team recruited an online sample of adults and randomly assigned them to:
- discuss issues in small groups using Google Hangout’s web-chat function. These discussions were structured and facilitated.
- listen to a live broadcast video about a policy issue; thanks to Spreecast’s technology, they could submit questions to the moderator and chat online with other participants.
- read text or watch videos that explained policy issues, or
- receive no information about the issues at all but just take a survey.
The evaluators compared the participants’ grasp of the issue and attitudes about citizenship and discussion. They also recruited college students for face-to-face discussions and randomly varied the facilitation style. The evaluation was funded by the Democracy Fund through a subcontract to CIRCLE at Tufts University.