Social Gov

Feds could take a Twitter lesson from Capitol Hill

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Agencies looking to improve on their citizen engagement may want to look to Capitol Hill for insights. According to a new study by the Congressional Research Service, the near-universal adoption of social media tools by members of Congress has changed communications between elected representatives and their constituents.

The study tracked two months of Twitter and Facebook use by members of Congress, from late August to late October in 2011. While the information is dated, it offers a detailed snapshot of how senators and representatives are taking advantage of new media to communicate.

Today, all of the senators and nearly all of the representatives in the 113th Congress have Twitter accounts. This is up markedly from just a year ago, when Twitter penetration stood at below 90 percent for all members, and Facebook use was at about 90 percent for House members at about 80 percent for senators.

During the period studied by the CRS, Republicans had the edge in adopting social media, especially in the House, where 94.7 percent of Republican members had Facebook accounts and 87.3 percent used Twitter.

About half of the total social media activity was generated by the most active 20 percent of congressional users. The report suggests that these active users "view Twitter differently" as a communications tool from those who use the medium sporadically. Few members are using their official social media channels to talk about what they had for lunch or to gush about the latest episode of Game of Thrones. And congressional rules prevent members from using their official Twitter or Facebook accounts to blast out campaign messages.

Legislators' social media activity is concentrated on a few key activities: announcing positions on issues, sharing information about home district activities, and discussing official actions such as a committee hearing or roll call vote. Members were less likely to use social media to alert constituents that they had been quoted in an article or to talk about something of personal interest.

For members, the use of social media is a way to build a following outside the state or district they represent. The study suggests that social media could pave the way from "surrogate representation" for groups that coalesce around a specific issue. "The consequences of such representation are not known, but could alter the representational strategies of individual Members within Congress," the report concludes.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy, health IT and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mr. Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian started his career as an arts reporter and critic, and has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, Architect magazine, and other publications. He was an editorial assistant and staff writer at the now-defunct New York Press and arts editor at the online network in the 1990s, and was a weekly contributor of music and film reviews to the Washington Times from 2007 to 2014.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.

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Reader comments

Thu, Apr 4, 2013

"Agencies looking to improve on their citizen engagement may want to look to Capitol Hill for insights." But agencies don't dare go on Twitter because these same Republican congressmen will ding us for using it, and call up their buddies at FOX and Drudge and Daily Caller or Politico to have them help demagogue their attacks.

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