Politicians and Twitter

In fall of 2011, I took a course on American political parties, and for my final research project I had decided to examine how political parties used Facebook and Twitter.  I didn’t have a Twitter account, so I had to sign up for one.  Once in, I didn’t fully grasp what the fuss was all about.   It seemed to me that Twitter was a big sounding board on which nobody interacted with anybody else (unless you were one of the select few who has managed to crack their way in to the inner circle).  On top of that, I wasn’t sure how to categorize Tweets.  So, after a couple of weeks, I decided to change the focus of my paper to something completely different- the arguments for and against the New START Treaty given by the two main parties.

Fast forward a few months to the week of the 2012 State of the Union.  I saw the various Twitterchats planned by the White House, and I wanted to participate; therefore, I got back on Twitter, and braved my way through the then confusing world of hashtags.  Since then, I’ve become a Twitter enthusiast, even using Tweetdeck to keep track of all of my lists.  Additionally, during the Republican primary debates and national party conventions, I became a proponent of the dual-screen experience.  During the debates between Gov. Romney and President Obama, I encouraged my students to follow along on Twitter so that they could see how the parties and the candidates attempted to frame the conversation.  Our discussions the days after the debates were great because not only did we talk about the debate itself, but also their thoughts on the use of social media in politics.  This semester, I plan on introducing a unit devoted solely to social media in politics, and it is this that led me to write a short post about how politicians use Twitter.

Instead of a discussion about politicians in general, I decided to focus on Wisconsin’s elected representatives in the House of Representatives (three Democrats and five Republicans).  Since new representatives were sworn in on January 3, 2013, I thought I would use their tweets between then and February 13, as a sample.  This time period not only encompasses the beginning of the new Congress, but also major events such as the White House’s announcement for reducing gun violence (January 16), President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address (January 20), the plan for immigration reform (January 29), and the 2013 State of the Union (February 12).  Surely as the new session began, politicians would be all over Twitter trying to spread their message and mobilize supporters.  I analyzed their tweets to see if they addressed any of the four major events and to see if they were critical of the opposition party.  I also took notice of which hashtags they used and their frequency.  Finally, I looked for URL’s to any sort of press release or statement regarding an action/idea/policy.  Here is a breakdown of my findings.

Rep. Sean Duffy; R, 7th District- 7 Tweets (2 Retweets, 0 Replies).  None of his Tweets addressed the four major events I mentioned above.  Three of them, however, mentioned town hall meetings with constituents.  The only hashtag he used more than once was #NoBudgetNoPay (twice).  One critical Tweet addressed a lack of budget from the President and Senate Democrats.  The only URL’s happened to be in the two Retweets.

Rep. Ron Kind; D, 3rd District- 16 Tweets (2 Retweets, 0 Replies).  Of the four major events, Rep. Kind discussed only the State of the Union, using #SOTU four times.  His only critical Tweet addressed Gov. Walker’s “decision to reject federal dollars for Medicaid expansion.”  Six of his tweets (not including the Retweets) included URL’s to news articles, media releases, and a YouTube video of his weekly address.

Rep. Gwen Moore; D, 4th District- 199 Tweets.  Due to the high number of Tweets and my lack of time, I am taking Rep. Moore out of my analysis.  Based on a cursory glance over her Tweets, however, I can say that she has mastered the use of hashtags and Tweeted extensively about the State of the Union.

Rep. Tom Petri; R, 6th District- does not have a Twitter account.  I did message his Facebook account to ask about the lack of a Twitter account but have not yet received a reply.

Rep. Mark Pocan; D, 2nd District- 1 Tweet.  The only Tweet happened to be about swearing in day and included a picture of Wisconsin products.  What’s interesting is that when I click on the Twitter icon on his congressional website, it re-directs me to the Twitter feed for the House Democrats.  Ironically, the same website has a page about social media with links to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr, all of which direct the user to the House Democrats.

Rep. Reid Ribble; R, 8th District- 17 Tweets (5 Retweets, 0 Replies).  Interestingly, none of the Tweets were in the month of February.  Similar to Rep. Duffy, Rep. Ribble used #NoBudgetNoPay more than once (three times).  None of his Tweets were critical of the President or the Democrats, but he did have two Tweets supporting Donald Driver (the Green Bay packers wide receiver).  Six Tweets included URL’s.

Rep. Paul Ryan; R, 1st District- 13 Tweets (0 Retweets, 0 Replies).  Twelve of his Tweets provided URLs to articles or videos.  Only one Tweet addressed one of the four events- the inauguration- and it congratulated the President.  Eight of the Tweets were critical of the Democrats and a lack of budget.  His last Tweet celebrated Pope Benedict XVI.  Only one Tweet contained a hashtag, and it was to promote him being on Meet the Press.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner; R, 5th District- 15 Tweets (4 Retweets, 0 Replies).  Two Tweets addressed the four events.  One Tweet provided a URL to a statement about immigration reform, while the other gave a URL to a video on the YouTube channel of House Republicans of what President Obama has said in previous SOTU’s.  These two Tweets were the only ones to contain any sort of criticism.  His only use of a hashtag came on January 3- #113th, in reference to the 113th Congress.  Nine of his ten Tweets included a URL, four of them back to his congressional website.

I was surprised with a number of issues.  First, with the exception of Rep. Moore, I thought that there would have been more Tweets.  With the growing use of social media in politics, and more being written about how politicians can successfully use it, I am surprised at how little the representatives from Wisconsin use Twitter.  Even more shocking was the fact that Rep. Petri does not have an account.

Next, given the two major events and two nationally covered policy initiatives that came from the White House, I was surprised to see how little attention they received.  There was little, if any, support or criticism for what the President said in his two speeches or on the proposals regarding reducing gun violence and immigration reform.  Are our representatives apathetic, or do they have their own agendas?  If they have their own agendas, why didn’t they Tweet more about them?  Or, perhaps the two issues of gun control and immigration are too controversial to discuss.

My conclusion- the elected representatives from Wisconsin are missing out on spreading their message by not actively using Twitter.  With the possibility to engage “Tweeps” through Twitterchats, and the fact that Twitter averaged 340 million Tweets per day in 2012 (CQ Press, “Social Media and Politics,” p. 875), using Twitter could be a great opportunity to build up support and spread one’s message.


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