Congressional use of social media platforms expands

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Elected officials are among the many who have hopped on the social media bandwagon, utilizing tools like Facebook and Twitter to communicate with their constituents. New research finds that elected officials are using social media to announce political stances rather than promoting their campaign, which contradicts previous research.

Sherri Greenberg, director at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs, and 17 UT students spent more than a year researching how members of Congress use the social media platforms Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. To conduct their research, they watched official congressional social media accounts over a 59-day period, categorizing 47,000 different Twitter and Facebook posts. Greenberg said the highest category was position-taking posts, which was a surprise due to previous research that suggested the opposite.

Greenberg said the study shows elected officials have gone through an evolution in their usage of social media.

“They have matured in how they are using it,” Greenberg said. “They are more comfortable, I think, now in not just saying ‘Oh, I’m on the news tonight’ but actually taking positions and talking about issues.”

“I knew that usage had increased exponentially, but I was not aware of the change in how they were using the technology,” Greenberg said. “Earlier research on Twitter has shown that they were using it mainly to let people know about media appearances.”

For example, an elected official might tweet that he or she would be appearing on CNN or a local news station later that evening. Posts like these were categorized as media appearances. Greenberg’s study showed a shift in usage from tweets about media appearances to tweets and posts about political positions.

Greenberg said the politicians have turned to social media to promote their stances because it is cheaper than buying airtime on television.

“If you don’t have money for TV, then you can use YouTube,” Greenberg said. “Or you can tweet at someone.”

The research also showed politicians are growing more comfortable with social media. Public affairs graduate student Matthew Cornelius worked with Greenberg on the study and said that three years ago, less than half of Congressional members were using social media. Now, 98 percent of Congress is using at least one social media platform and 72 percent are using Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.

“It’s just part of everyday life now,” Cornelius said. “What they are using it for is really a mirror of what is happening in the country at large. People are using these tools to state their claim and be on one side of the issue.”

In their study, Greenberg said they also found that members of Congress were using Twitter almost twice as much as Facebook.

“They’re using Twitter more because it is so easy,” Greenberg said. “With only 140 characters, you don’t have to watch your grammar quite as much.”

Greenberg also said she thinks Facebook is less effective.

“People tend to say Facebook is ‘my personal feed,’” Greenberg said. “They don’t want to be bothered by ads or campaigns.”

Public affairs graduate student Racheal Kane, who also worked on the study, said the findings gave her mixed feelings and she is unsure the change will make for a better political atmosphere. However, she said increased transparency will hold politicians more accountable.

“One thing we saw was members of Congress actually tweeting and posting on how they were voting on individual bills,” Kane said. “In the past, you really had to go digging to find that. My concern, though, is not all people are using social media and are tuning in to what is going on.”

Student Government President Thor Lund said the results of the study did not surprise him. He said social media provides an outlet for elected officials to voice opinions that might not be heard otherwise.

As elected officials, Lund said he and SG Vice President Wills Brown use their social media accounts to let students know what they do on a day-to-day basis. During their campaign, Lund and Brown said they would deliver monthly YouTube addresses to keep students better informed on what was happening in SG. Lund said he and Brown will deliver their first YouTube address summarizing what SG worked on this summer in August.

“We also use it to show that we are out across campus advocating for the issues that directly affect students,” Lund said.

Greenberg said she is planning to continue to pursue research on social media. She said she wants to study how public officials use their social media to personally have dialogue with constituents.