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Nov. 02, 2012
CONTACT: K. E. Schwab

SRU faculty say 'Robo calls' ineffective

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Nearly everyone has received political robo calls from Jim, Mary, Stephanie, Tom, Bob, the governor, senators, representatives and even the "Hello my friend, this is Pat Boone, yes, 'Love Letters in the Sand,' Pat Boone.'" But do Slippery Rock University political science faculty think such calls have any effect on election outcomes?

Sharon Sykora, SRU associate professor of political science, said she dislikes the calls, "but I have to listen to them because of my job. I have to know what is going on in such calls; what the callers are saying - so I can discuss the issues with my students."

"I don't believe robo calls work. The most effective communication is face-to-face with potential voters. The next most effective communication method is real, live persons on the phone working without a script, but the gap between a person in-your-face or on the phone is huge," she said.

"All these years of thinking that technology was key to successful political campaigns is proving inaccurate," she said.

"That said, a recent research study about Facebook's influence on the 2010 election found that when people posted they had voted, it was found their circle of friends were more likely to also then vote - and post the fact they had voted," Sykora said.

"It is certainly an interesting use of social media," she said. "It was socially accepted, kind of a 'cool' thing to do and affected younger voters more than older. I am sure social scientists will be doing similar studies involving this year's elections."

"I can't tell you how many robo calls I have gotten this election season, but it is in the dozens. I am finding that most of them are not the actual campaigns, but outside groups making calls in support of their particular issue or candidate. I don't think it is a wise way for them to spend their money. We will see what happens," she said.

"When I receive a call, I curiously listen all the way through to try to determine which groups are calling my house and why. I am getting calls from every group - both sides. I live in Harrisville, so I assume they just picked and blanketed a particular area code calling everyone on the list," she said.

David Kershaw, assistant professor of political science at SRU, takes the opposite action. "When I hear the 'computer click' after answering I know it is going to be a robo call, so I just hang up."

"Political calls to me this year have been very limited," he said. "My students have also not reported being hit with such calls. I was not here for the 2008 election, but have heard that there were local calls primarily designed to confuse potential voters by giving them inaccurate information about their proper polling location."

"The robo calls gave out the wrong information, but we don't know if it had any true effect on the election, since there is no way to track the calls against the results," he said. "You can guess that it did effect some people, but on the opposite side it may have made some people even more determined to get out and vote, especially if they realized the call had been designed to suppress the vote."

Kershaw, who teaches introduction to public policy, American government, the politics of race, and research methods classes, joined the SRU faculty in 2011.

"I don't believe such calls really effect elections, but I think politicians are forced to use them because they just don't know and aren't willing to take the chance that they have some influence," he said. "Research suggests they don't even mobilize supporters of a candidate or an issue. They are just not effective. They are a nuisance."

"However, telemarketing and robo calls are relatively cheap to do... You don't have to pay someone and the goal is to win the campaign, so if you are behind you try something - anything. Of course, the telemarketing-firm that make the calls say, 'It works,'" he said.

"Still, I think, most people just hang up on such calls. They prefer to talk to a real person, and most people do not like politics all that much in the first place," Kershaw said.

Thomas Flynn, professor of communication who lives in Ohio, said he beat the robo callers to the punch. "I voted early and now just monitor my incoming calls, answering only those calls I recognize."

Flynn said he agrees with other SRU faculty in saying such calls have no effect.

It has been estimated more than 1 billion of the automatically dialed, pre-recorded messages will have been delivered before the 2012 election season ends Nov. 6.

Laws regarding robo calls in the U.S. vary by state, but the Federal Communication Commission has few restrictions on political calls, even the "U.S. National Do Not Call Registry" regulations don't apply to such calls. Robo and other political calls from political parties, their unaffiliated campaigns, 527 organizations, unions and even individual citizens are not prohibited by law or FCC regulation.

Such calls to cell phones are prohibited, but because the rules are so widely violated enforcement has become near impossible. FCC officials report thousands of complaints, but few prosecutions, according to Wikipedia information.

The Federal Trade Commission prohibits robo calls that actually try to sell products, but not informational calls such as those used in political campaigns.

The FTC has issued a $50,000 challenge to anyone who can create an innovative solution that will block illegal, commercial robocalls on landlines and mobile phones. For details visit:

Officials recommend if someone receives a robo or telemarketing call they don't want, they should simply hang up.

Engaging the caller in a complaint conversation, can, and often does, result in the caller being earmarked for even more calls. Even entering a telephone keystroke to "Be removed from our calling list" can result in additional, or more frequent, calls, rather that removal, experts say.

Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.