How Policymakers Evaluate Online versus Offline Constituent Messages
7 Pages Posted: 13 Oct 2018 Last revised: 13 Jun 2019
Date Written: November 30, 2018
The internet has made it easier than ever for citizens to communicate with their elected representatives. However, theories of costly signaling suggest representatives may infer that constituents who write to them via lower-effort online mediums care less about the issues than those who communicate via higher-effort, offline mediums. To examine this possibility, we fielded a conjoint survey experiment with a national sample of local U.S. policymakers in which we manipulate various factors of constituent messages, including whether it is delivered via social media or in person. We find that policymakers rate social media messages as substantially less informative and influential than identical messages delivered in person. However, we also find that this discount factor associated with online communication can be overcome through increased participation: our estimates imply that a message received online from 47 constituents is as influential as the same message received from a single constituent in person. Taken together, these findings demonstrate that the effectiveness of online constituent communication depends crucially on the increase in constituent participation it facilitates. More generally, this study illustrates the double-edged nature of low-cost communication technologies for democracy in the digital era.
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