By the People: America in the World, a new initiative of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, aims to energize and enhance the national conversation on America's role in the world through a series of national and local broadcasts and events that demonstrate the relevance of foreign policy issues to local concerns. The project includes three national PBS specials, two cycles of local programming, national and local forums for civic dialogue, and an interactive web site. NCDD is helping By the People locate practitioners who can facilitate these dialogues across the country when needed. Click on "read more info" below to learn about the first online Deliberative Opinion Poll, which was organized for this project. www.by-the-people.org
First Online Deliberative Opinion Poll Reveals Informed Opinions on World Problems
The world's first Online Deliberative Opinion Poll reveals the potential for a new form of democracy on the Internet. Public consultation on the Internet now occurs primarily through "quick votes" with self-selected samples. There are also a few efforts to conduct traditional polling. But information technology now offers new potential for an entirely different form of Internet democracy -- one that is both representative and informed. Deliberative Polling® is a trade mark of James S. Fishkin.
A scientifically selected and representative sample of 280 Americans participated in the online Deliberative Poll. The participants were evenly divided by gender. 30 percent were non-white and 35 percent had high school education or less. Approximately one-third did not own a home computer with Internet access. (They were provided the necessary equipment and technology.) Many might have had trouble participating in an extended public dialogue in person, for instance because they were sick, because they had significant handicaps, or because had small children at home (7 percent said they had a disability of some sort).
Participants met online, in small groups of 10-20 led by trained moderators, to discuss the role of the United States in world affairs. The software allowed the participants literally to speak to each other (as opposed to merely typing text messages), which made these online discussions relatively comparable to in-person discussions.
The online discussions began in early December and continued over a period of four weeks with a break for the holidays. Each group assembled twice a week for an hour to exchange views and talk about competing objectives of U.S. foreign policy. The sequence of topics began with the right to strike unilaterally versus multilaterally against potential terrorists or other enemies, then moved on to the possibility of promoting the spread of democratic governance in the world, then to working cooperatively with other nations, to adjusting international trade barriers, and to dealing with AIDS and world hunger in developing countries.
In the ordinary course of affairs, most people have little incentive to invest time and effort in acquiring political information. Hence the opinions expressed in conventional polls tend to be top-of-the-head, and quite possibly very different from what they would be if the respondents actually knew or thought more about the issues.
By contrast, a Deliberative Poll provides its participants with sustained opportunities for learning, discussion, and reflection, enabling them to form more substantial and better reasoned opinions.
Prior to each online meeting, participants read carefully balanced, non-partisan briefing materials (designed by the National Issues Forums Institute and the Kettering Foundation) offering an overview of "Americans' Role in the World".
They also posed clarifying questions to experts, selected by the Online Newshour, who represented competing viewspoints. The questions and answers were posted periodically on the PBS Online NewsHour website. Responses from the Online Newshour were incorporated into the deliberations as the weeks proceeded. The briefing materials are also available on that site as are detailed results.
The General Results
After deliberating, the participants increased their willingness to take responsibility for problems around the world. The percentages who placed priority on providing food and medical help to poor countries rose from 51 percent to 67 percent, on protecting human rights in other countries from 49 percent to 60 percent, and on protecting weaker nations against aggression from 56 percent to 68 percent.
Questions and Answers
In addition to discussing issues and policies, the online groups generate a battery of questions each week. The Online NewsHour research the questions and find resources or experts that answer the queries. The groups questions and the answers they received are posted throughout the week at the Online NewsHour.