Digital town halls: An additional civic tool, or another barrier?

Digital town halls: An additional civic tool, or another barrier?

Plenty of politicians like to jaw about how much more accessible to constituents digital technology allows them to be, or how social media provide an avenue to reach a larger audience.

There’s some truth to that–consider President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign–but there are also arguments that social media, when used as a political tool, can be exclusive and even give politicians unique control over what is communicated to the public.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s administration announced last week that it plans to hold an “online town hall” on Aug. 23. Participants can use social media to “Tell Toni” how her administration should craft the county’s fiscal year 2013 budget.

“Social media allows us to engage residents more broadly, and aid us as we incorporate new ideas into our budget,” Preckwinkle said in the press release.  “This is an important part of our budget process and I’m looking forward to hearing from the public.”

But just how accessible will the “online town hall” be to everyone?

Generally speaking, Internet use along socioeconomic and racial lines has greatly increased in the last decade. But disparities still exist.

A Pew Research Center study in April said that, as of August 2011, more white adults in the U.S. had access to the Internet than African Americans and Latinos. The numbers break down to 80 percent for whites, 71 percent for black, and 68 percent for Latinos.

The study also found higher incomes translated to higher rates for Internet use. Sixty-two percent of those interviewed who made $30,000 or less annually used the Web, while 97 percent of those earning $75,000 or more per year used the Internet.

“This is why it [a digital town hall] cannot replace in-person meetings,” said Brian Gladstein, executive director at the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “While this provides an additional tool, and we are in the digital age … not everybody can afford a computer.”

Perhaps, but another study, released in June by the University of Chicago, found that youths–ages 15-25–across racial lines reported having roughly equal access to a computer with the Internet. The breakdown: 98 percent for Asian Americans, 96 percent for whites, 96 percent for Latinos and 94 percent for blacks.

The study also found that the different racial groups engaged in political activities at about the same rate.

There’s also the issue of the unique and unprecedented control over the script that social media give to politicians who use the technology for town halls.

After all, when politicians are asked questions in a digital town all that they don’t want to answer, it’s much easier to sweep it under the cyber rug than it would be if an attendee demanded a response at a physical meeting.

“If you have an open forum … and then everything that gets asked gets posted. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be discussed. But it [a list of questions] should be put somewhere,” Gladstein said, describing a digital archive of inquiries that would allow the public to see what participants asked elected officials.

Gladstein noted that, as long as there’s a balance between the physical meetings and the digital ones, the former can actually be an additional tool, instead of just a barrier.

“People want to feel engaged, they want to know that they have access to the politicians they put into office to make decisions; so the free-flow, organic meeting, I don’t think, can be replaced by social media,” Gladstein added. “I think the Cook County Board President is a reformer … but these are all questions that need to be asked.”

Preckwinkle spokesman Owen Kilmer said the administration held a public meeting in July and intends to schedule more in the future.

Paul Green, a political commentator and director for the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University, has a bit more of a cynical view on town halls in general.

“No one holds a town hall meeting to learn anything … it’s basically to show that the candidate or the officer is a people person, getting out there and meeting the crowd,” Green said. “Most town halls, there’s often more reinforcing than education. They [politicians] want the media to be there to show they’re doing something.”

Kilmer countered that, pointing to an instance last year when funding that was supposed to be cut from the Cook County Victim Witness Assistance program was restored, following testimony by the public at a town hall meeting.

Green said he likes the idea that, potentially, more people could participate in the digital town hall, but he conceded that a digital divide, however small, is still a barrier. He also said that town halls, in person and the digital kind, are generally “overrated”.

“Most people do it because it’s positive for their image,” Green said. “It’s more show than go.”

© Community Renewal Society 2012



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