More Politicians Are Tweeting. But What Are They Saying?

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Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Congress and social media have had a rocky relationship. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) had a popular Twitter account, including musings on everything from hitting a deer in his car to the History Channel, until his staff felt the need to rein it in and focus on policy. Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D-NY) political downfall began with a tweet. During this year’s Super Bowl, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) accidently blasted out personal tweets to all of his followers.

The list of Twitter-based foibles goes on. One might think Capitol Hill should steer clear of fast-paced, two-way communication channels. But a new report finds use of social media channels like Twitter and Facebook by Congress members has increased dramatically.

The March report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), available here, uses data from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin to track social media use of members of the U.S. Congress. It finds that, of 541 members in both chambers, the number registered on Twitter jumped from 205 in 2009 (38 percent) to 426 in January 2013 (78.7 percent). Meanwhile, 87.2 percent of all members have a Facebook account.

CRS finds that the most prolific users of social media in Congress are Senate Republicans, who sent out an average of 1.53 tweets per day. They were followed by their Democratic colleagues, who tweeted an average of 1.49 tweets per day. In the House, Republicans averaged 1.23 tweets per day and their Democratic colleagues averaged 1.09 tweets per day. Senate Republicans also posted on Facebook most often, with an average of 0.84 posts a day.

But what are they saying? The study does categorize the tweets and Facebook posts, finding that posts taking a position on policy were most common. The study found other types of posts were popular – including ones focused on congressional action and media appearances – but it did not track the level of interactivity between the members and their constituents and the general public.

The report also raises important questions about how social media may be used by those in Congress to reach wider audiences beyond their districts or states; whether Congress members will reconfigure their staffs to address the growing use of Twitter and Facebook; and how chamber communication policy may need to change to deal with the uptick in electronic communications.

So while Grassley’s tweets about the fearlessness of the pilgrims may have stopped, Congress’ interest in social media seems to be just getting started.

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