Congressional Republicans Dominate TwitterPosted by Staff on September 23, 2009
Congressional Republicans may be struggling to communicate a coherent message above the angry din generated by town hall protests, Rep. Joe Wilson’s scream and conservative talkers, but a new study finds it’s not for lack of tweeting.
Nearly twice as many Republicans as Democrats have accounts on the social networking platform Twitter (101 compared with 57), and the GOP dominates Twitter usage by an even wider margin, according to a report released this week by the Congressional Research Service that analyzed two weeklong periods in July and August. During those spans, congressional Republicans posted 932 messages — or tweets — compared with 255 for Democrats, CRS analysts found.
Twitter allows users to text short messages of 140 characters or fewer from their phones, BlackBerrys or computers to their profile pages and their followers’ phones and computers. And though some experts question the effectiveness of Twitter as a political communication tool and more than a few lawmakers have already experienced the downside of the unfiltered communication it offers, Republican communications staffers have actively encouraged their lawmakers to tweet away. And so they have.
“While in St. Joseph, I made a second stop at the Stetson outlet store to get a second pair of Levi’s,” Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) tweeted this month.
“Stoked that the triplets stood up on a surfboard and road [sic] the wave for the first time today,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) recently informed his public.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had the most subscribers to his tweets, but two Democrats — Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Claire McCaskill of Missouri — did make it into the top five list maintained by the website TweetCongress, which describes itself as “a grass-roots effort to get our men and women in Congress to open up and have a real conversation with us.” It lists Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) in the top five, as well, and puts the current total of congressional Twitterers to 190. The CRS report, meanwhile, found that 4,186 people subscribed to — or followed — the median Republican senator, versus 2,874 for the median Democratic senator. The median Republican congressman had 1,615 followers, compared with 969 for Democratic colleagues.
Through a spokeswoman, McCaskill said her staff doesn’t monitor her tweets and that her constituents get a lot out of the direct interaction with her.
What are members of Congress getting out of all this sharing? Not clear.
David All, a Republican Internet strategist hired recently to help bolster Wilson’s presence online — including on Twitter — said the site “is not the end-all, be-all, but it has proven to be a good tool to help public officials, trade associations, major brands and media achieve their online goals.”
He asserted that “every effective communications professional or major association needs a real strategy for utilizing Twitter at all times — especially during key events where real-time response is crucial.”
But Micah Sifry, who blogs about the intersection of the Internet and politics at TechPresident, contended that “few members of Congress are really using Twitter very effectively. Most aren’t engaging a community all that well and, instead, use the tool primarily to broadcast a PR-style message that isn’t likely to get spread around much by others.”
In fact, congressional staffers have taken to tweeting bland press-release-style messages in their bosses’ names. According to the CRS study, a lion’s share of the 1,187 congressional tweets during the two weeks analyzed (July 26 through Aug. 1, and Aug. 9 through Aug. 16) touted upcoming television appearances or disseminated links to press releases or news stories in which the member in question was quoted.
Bill Tancer, general manager of global research at Hitwise, which tracks Internet traffic, said Twitter “does have the potential” to be an effective political tool, though he predicted it’s just as likely that another new platform will supersede it.
And that’s not the only problem GOP tweeters have faced.
A handful of House members were called out for tweeting during President Barack Obama’s February address to a joint session of Congress, including Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), whose account tweeted, “Aggie basketball game is about to start on espn2 for those of you that aren’t going to bother watching pelosi smirk for the next hour.” That was followed quickly by another message reading: “Disregard that last tweet from a staffer.”
In July, Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a member of the Navy Reserve, was criticized for disclosing his location while on duty, which risked running afoul of military rules.
Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) raised eyebrows when he used his very active Twitter account to compare the Iranian protests over their disputed election to House Republicans’ efforts to “expose repression” such as a House Democratic “clampdown” on Republican amendments.
But Culberson, whose 12,735 followers put him among the most popular House members on Twitter, called social networking “an essential part of my job, which is a direct personal interaction with my constituents. The day will come very soon in which we will achieve real-time democracy in a way that has never been done before. And like freedom, once people taste it, they won’t go back.”
Still, he said Twitter is just “one tool. I have shifted in recent weeks to Facebook. I’m personally convinced that Facebook will be the pivot point for the next American Revolution, which will organize itself digitally over the Internet and will express itself at the next election.”