Incivility project post #2: retail political communication and email traffic

Just a quick, intermediate post on a very small part of the research going into my book on the Internet, political communication and incivility.

One of the things that some interviewees told me about their work in moderating websites and working for politicians was the difficulty presented by the sheer volume of digital communication – especially email – that comes their way. The pace and amount of communication was, for many, more of a worry than tone, even when the really abusive stuff is taken into account. Successive waves of information technologies have enormously expanded the burden on frontline workers in political and media institutions.

This is representative of a relatively unexplored and often unacknowledged dimension of political communication that has expanded rapidly in the digital era, starting long before more heralded developments in political campaigning. A lot of research in political communication has concentrated either on the relationship between media and politicians, or on one version of another of effects research – for example the persuasive effectiveness of campaign messaging or media coverage on voters. (There are many notable and noble exceptions to this, of course).

I’ve started using the term retail political communication to distinguish the area of work my interviewees have led me to think more about . Funnily enough, it’s a form of work that politicians and higher profile journalists are extensively shielded from by their staff. The workers I spoke to are the ones who have to cope with the massive amounts of material which now come back at politicians and media outlets from digitally-equipped citizens and audiences. Retail political communication is where the biggest changes (and to my mind crises) in liberal-democratic political communication systems are playing out. It’s a term which I’ll explicate further elsewhere but that gives some of the picture.

(It might start sounding that I am not as sanguine as others about the “democratising” effect of digital media technologies – that I think will wind up being something of an understatement.)

I took what my interviewees said seriously and decided to try to find out some metrics which might be indicative of changes in the volume of political communication. I would stress that the metrics are being used as just one measure – I certainly believe what people tell me about changes in their jobs, and I am in no sense checking up on them. I have a longer, theoretical and methodological reason for rejecting the economistic distinction between revealed and stated behaviours, and for trusting people’s accounts of their own work. The book overall is not quantitatively focused. And I’ll be arguing back and forth between between metrics like this, interviews and lots of political theory. But I won’t bother you with that now.

How to gauge changes in retail political communication? It’s difficult and dubiously ethical/legal to access the email archives of individual politicians – and they don’t hang around very long on average anyway. It wasn’t obvious to me that the government had ever published the volume of communication coming its way. So I decided to make a Freedom of Information request using Open Australia‘s handy tool on their Right To Know site.

You can see the path my request took on the site. It took a month or so but apart from that the process was pretty painless, and although I didn’t get everything I wanted, that was entirely due to technical issues – they just can’t resolve traffic figures to individual members or even differentiate easily between senators and MPs.

FoI’s-as-scholarly-method might turn out to be an interesting conversation to have in its own right. For journalists, they’re often used in an essentially adversarial, muckraking fashion, where the operating assumption is that the government is trying to conceal something. Other less serious people use them in the course of self-aggrandisement. But in my case, I was simply trying to encourage government to bring some information to light which is not necessarily sensitive or damaging, or even deliberately concealed, but that hand’t been sought out or published. Alongside FoI’s applications in journalism, could requests by scholars come to be seen as part of productive collaborations? Food for methodological thought (If you know of any discussions of this that already exist, I’d love to hear about them).

I’ve now put in further FoIs to find out email traffic to ministers, and (I hope) comments posted to the websites of national broadcasters.

ANYWAY, I thought there might be some general interest in some details of the figures, which are public now anyway on the Right to Know site, and which do indeed suggest big increases in traffic over time, and just as interestingly, large declines in the more immediate past. The unpredictability of the workload arising from digital communication technology might end up being as important as raw increases.

What we are looking at here is the details of email to Federal MPs and Senators’ electorate offices. I have submitted a separate FoI request to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to ask about the email coming into ministerial offices. I will follow up with state parliaments as well. Parliamentary Services were good enough to break the figures down into emails sent between addresses within the parliamentary computing network, and emails arriving from the Internet.

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You can see that the early figures have been rounded to the nearest 10000 – that’s the way they came I’m afraid! Just looking at the table that there’s a series of big increases in Internet email (which makes sense as a metric for retail political communication) between the turn of the millennium and 09-10, followed by a decline to Rudd era levels over 10/11 and 12/13.

Aren’t you lucky: I made a chart with these and totals.

Chart 1 1

Big increases in a decade – Internet email increased 1194% between 99-00 and 09-10, while the electorate staff entitlement for MPs went from 3 to 4. You can see that in the second half of the decade, internal communication within the parliamentary network levelled off, while communication from the outside world increased with enormous rapidity (64% increase in 09-10) and then fell away just as quickly (27% and 33% decreases in 10-11 and 11-12).

I graphed year on year changes in traffic here. I’ve made some other charts but I’m not Ezra Klein so I will leave it here for now.

Chart 2

Commercial organisations can respond to big increases in email traffic related to their core business by hiring more people. Even public service departments have more flexibility in staffing than MPs have with regard to electorate staff. In circumstances where a significant source of workload is changing so quickly, and there is a legitimate expectation that contact from constituents will be attended to in a timely way, it becomes difficult to rationally plan and apportion staff workloads, and attend to the other functions of an MP’s office.

Trends like this may contribute to a heightened frustration with government, a progressive loss of faith in its capacities, and a spiral of incivility. But this will be a major theme of the project as a whole.

Anyway, all of this is by way of a taster. Obvious questions include the source of the recent decline (is it related to the broader uptake of web 2.0 technologies?) the source of big spikes, and the relationship between these upticks and incivility. So much more to explore, but that’s it for now.

Any questions or comments, stick ‘em below or get in touch.