BY LISA TREI
Results from the world's first online deliberative opinion poll closely match those from a parallel face-to-face questionnaire, suggesting that the Internet could one day be used to reach a broader citizenry.
"This is a new tool for democracy because it attempts to represent everyone under conditions where they can become more informed," said James Fishkin, professor of government at the University of Texas-Austin. He devised the online poll with Professor Shanto Iyengar, chair of the Department of Communication at Stanford. "This is a vision of what democracy online could look like in the future," Fishkin added.
The Political Communication Lab at Stanford and the Center for Deliberative Polling at the University of Texas-Austin, headed by Iyengar and Fishkin, respectively, created the framework for the online voice-based poll. By extending the process to the web and providing computers and Internet access to those without the required technology, Iyengar said they reached people often excluded from public discourse. A stay-at-home mother with small children, a blind woman and a deaf woman were among those who joined the online poll from the convenience of their homes, he said.
Starting in early December, 15 groups of 10 to 20 people selected as a nationally representative sample met online with trained moderators for an hour twice a week to discuss America's role in the world. The discussions continued over six weeks, with a break for the winter holidays.
"For the first time, the haves and have-nots participated equally," Iyengar said. "We were able to avoid the digital divide. This was America speaking."
Unlike conventional surveys, Deliberative Polls (which is the registered trademark name) give participants the opportunity to learn about the subject under discussion before being questioned. Consequently, opinions expressed are more reasoned than typical "top-of-the-head" answers given in traditional polls, said Fishkin, who first developed the deliberative process in 1988 at Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Furthermore, current online polls are self-selected and consequently do not provide representative answers.
Results from the online deliberative poll, which were released Jan. 27, show that the 280 participants increased their willingness for the United States to take responsibility for problems around the world.
The changes were statistically significant when compared to a control group of 303 online respondents who were questioned before and after -- but who did not deliberate the issues, Iyengar said.
"For example, [uninformed] public opinion often thinks that the U.S. squanders billions of dollars on foreign aid," he said. "If you give people the opportunity to immerse themselves in the subject, they become more inclined to increase the level of U.S. aid."
Results from the poll reveal that the percentage of those who placed priority on providing food and medical help to poor countries rose from 51 to 67 percent. Those who supported the protection of human rights in other countries rose from 49 to 60 percent; those who supported protecting weaker nations against aggression rose from 56 to 68 percent; and those who supported reducing world poverty rose from 50 to 60 percent.
"Participants entered the dialogue as U.S. citizens and left looking a bit more as if they were also citizens of the world," Fishkin said.
The online results paralleled those from a face-to-face deliberative poll of 340 people conducted Jan. 12 following a two-day convention in Philadelphia, where participants discussed the same issues in person, Fishkin said. The convention kicked off By the People: America in the World, a 16-month program hosted by MacNeil/Lehrer Productions to help Americans better understand how they see themselves in relation to the rest of the world. For more details, visit http://www.pbs.org/newshour/btp/.
Online participants were recruited by Knowledge Networks, a market research firm in Menlo Park founded by political science Professors Douglas Rivers and Norman Nie. Those in the face-to-face project were selected by the Survey Research Center at the University of California-Berkeley. Both groups used the same non-partisan briefing materials on "Americans' Role in the World" that were designed by the Kettering Foundation and the National Issues Forums Institute, and afterward they answered the same questionnaire.
Erasing the digital divide
Iyengar said the online participants were evenly divided by gender, 30 percent were non-white and 35 percent had a high school education or less. Participants came from across the country and included retirees, engineers, college students, plumbers, telephone technicians, postal workers and the unemployed. About one-third of the group did not own a home computer with Internet access. Iyengar said these participants were given an inexpensive computer and headset that they were allowed to keep if they completed the project. Those who already owned a computer were given $250 in cash if they finished.
"I was anticipating a high attrition rate," Iyengar said. "What I found remarkable was that people kept talking after the sessions ended." A moderator wrote afterward: "The delegates in my session would definitely want to get together sometime in the future again. They did not want these sessions to end." One participant who is 95 percent blind relied on her husband to tell her when it was her turn to speak. "She said she does not often get to talk to others like this and really appreciated it very much," her group's moderator wrote afterward.
Moderators worked with the participants to start and keep conversations going, Iyengar said. The sessions used a type of software that allowed participants to join a queue to speak and prevented anyone from talking at the same time. Until now, online polls have been based on written text, Iyengar said, which excludes those who cannot type. "We wanted to do a real voiced-based conversation," he said. "I am thrilled that we were able to pull it off."
Iyengar said the process shows that people feel empowered when they are given an opportunity to participate in society. "The question is, how do we get a national town hall meeting going?" he asked. "How does information technology play a role in bringing this about? As more people get access to the web it may be easier and cheaper to make this happen."
Fishkin is convinced this can become a reality. "The big
expense was overcoming the digital divide," he said. "Eventually,
access to a computer will be like access to a telephone." He said
that online polls can support "democracy in the virtual world by
making it both representative and deliberative. Normally, it's
neither." Results from such polls represent informed opinion,
Fishkin said, knowledge that can in turn become part of the broader
Stanford Report, January 29, 2003