Before the pandemic, Elected official communications were relatively autonomous and traditional, with in-person meetings and a small staff managing responses to constituents via phone, mail, or email. While both AOC and Donald Trump dominated in social media in recent years, outreach among other members was relatively small.
The Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) found that elected representatives changed their communication methods in response to the pandemic. The pandemic is similar to the 2001 anthrax attack in changing how we communicate with Government. In 2001, the Congressional postal mail system was shut down for five months after five people were killed by anthrax mailed to government offices by Bruce Irvine, a scientist at Fort Detrick’s biodefence lab. This shutdown made the post and fax obsolete overnight. Yet, even once the mail was restored, almost all (80-90%) of constituent communication continued via email.
With the COVID-19 Pandemic, in-person meetings and town halls were almost instantaneously abandoned to observe social distancing. Elected officials started using zoom and telephone town halls to communicate with their constituents. Many other government services shifted quickly to digital to allow the government to function during the disruption. These digital changes have dramatically improved access among working citizens, reducing barriers of time and travel. It is unlikely that this shift will be abandoned after the pandemic has improved the ability of the government to adapt and serve more efficiently than before.
There were many errors in health communications during the pandemic, with state and federal data having massive (~30%) discrepancies. These errors led to the growth of misinformation, reduced confidence in government, and increased public fear and confusion about the pandemic risk. The ongoing tensions between the White House, State, and Local Governments, with the resulting varied responses, also added to both confusion and increases in cases and deaths. The Covid-19 Pandemic taught us that government communication must be highly effective and well-coordinated to help manage pandemics, avoid social chaos and widespread damage.
One of the actions that congressional members can do to help is to use their website and social media to convey accountability to their constituents. CMF used surveys from 2015-2020 to understand how to improve voter trust in Congress. Overall the survey found that voters support members’ decisions when confident that Members are acting on their ideals, not outside influence. One way of gaining this trust is by explaining how members voted on major issues and, more importantly, why. Most voters stated that it would help increase trust “a lot” by publishing this information alongside donor information.
As we move forward as a country, we will build upon the greater access afforded by the technology that has been rolled out during the pandemic. At the same time, we must be more vigilant about the growth of misinformation and how minor errors in communication can cause significant harm to society. Alongside this, we can take advantage of the opportunity to increase trust in elected representatives. The ability for one’s voice to be magnified is something to be both celebrated and feared depending on how we choose to use this power.