Twongress – The Power of Twitter in Congress

Twongress Cover

I need to start off by stating the obvious – this is a bit of a departure from my FDA beat.  However, I work in health care public affairs and have for many years.  As any reader of this blog knows, I am very keen on social media and its ability to amplify targeted messages to specific audiences.   And as we have seen through the health care reform debate, policy makers have great influence into what ideas and concepts will be shaping the future of health care and are communicating that to their constituents, among other things.   And while we have, for the most part, put the health care reform debate behind us, there is yet to come the reform of health care reform.   That was my interest in t this report.  

As social media in general, and Twitter in particular, have had growing utility among policy makers, I therefore set out to examine the role of Twitter and its use by members of Congress (MOCs) to determine who was using this medium and where, if at all, there was influence and clout among members.  Hence the white paper that I am publishing today – "Twongress – The Power of Twitter in Congress" - Download Twongress White Paper Final 1-14-10

I set out to look not only at the quantitative aspect – who is on Twitter and how many followers do they have, but how engaged MOCs were with this tool.

The methodology is explained in the paper, but essentially I gleaned the list of MOCs using Twitter from Sourcewatch and then used the tool Twitazlyer to assess Twitter use in specific categories – Influence, Signal, Generosity, Velocity and Clout – all terms defined in the paper.  The results were then entered into spreadsheets and the data was then cut various ways to get the numerical picture – who has the most followers – who follows the most people on Twitter, and who tweets the most.  I also focused on the categories of influence and clout to get some insight into who is using the tool effectively.  I cut the data by looking at both the House and the Senate, as well as by party affiliation.  The report shows that data, and lists those MOCs who have acquired the most influence and clout.  It is important to emphasize that the data reflects a snapshot in time and while individual rankings may have changed for some of these categories for individual MOCs, there are clear bottom line trends.    It should also be noted that only MOCs using Twitter under their name were included, and the report reflects active Twitter feeds as opposed to feeds that exist but where there has been no activity, except that a member has acquired followers (though has not sent any tweets).  

The presidential election of 2008 witnessed the first time that social media played a significant role in the way candidates reached out to the electorate.   The data for this report was primarily gathered during the first week of November – one year out from the presidential election and one year from the upcoming mid-term election.    

Here are a few of the topline findings.  There are 89 Republicans using Twitter and 32 Democrats. While there is near-parity between the parties in the Senate, House Republicans are particularly active on Twitter.  For example, House Republicans sent out 29,162 Tweets.  One House member ranked in the top ten number of followers with nine Republicans in the top ten.  Two House Democrats were in the top 20, and eighteen House Republicans in terms of followers.  Two Democrats were in the top ten for influence and clout, with eight Republicans in the top ten. All told, in the House,  Democrats sent out 5,503 and Republicans sent out 29,162.

While there was much more parity on the Senate side, individual distinctions emerged.   Senator John McCain has more followers by far than any MOC.  Senator Claire McCaskill sends more Tweets than any MOC.  Senator Jim DeMint pulled more influence and clout than any MOC, in spite of Senator McCain's far greater number of followers.  

But there is also a story beyond the mere numbers.  While some in Congress have embraced Twitter with some gusto and have acquired significant followers, the truth is that no one in Congress is doing a particularly outstanding job in using Twitter or maximizing its potential.  There has been little effort to develop the resource to engage communities by classifying their tweets by topic for their constituencies through the use of hashtags.  For example, one could organize one's tweets under hashtags for "taxes" or even by party – such as"DEMHCR" for Democratic member views on health care reform.  Those tweets could be aggregated at Web sites, and twitter could drive traffic to those Web sites.    Without such strategic efforts by either individuals in Congress or by the parties, the primary use of Twitter by Congress is merely as a message platform to push out points direct to waiting constituencies.  In other words, the tweets are one-offs.  Much more, actually, could be done to harness the echo chamber that is Twitter.    

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