Photo via Tony Fischer/Flickr (CC-BY)
In an official company blog post in early 2013, Twitter announced that all 100 U.S. senators and 90 percent of members of the House of Representatives were using the micro-blogging service. While Facebook may have a larger domestic user base, Twitter is, in many ways, the perfect social network for politicians—it's fast, direct, and the 140-character limit requires they talk in easily digestible sound bites.
However, while everyone in the Senate has a Twitter account, not all of them are equally used. Some senators are constant tweeters, whereas others use the service much more infrequently.
In a study published in the journal Online Information Review, researchers from the Congressional Research Service and the University of Maryland looked at what factors contributed to a senator's Twitter use.
The researchers looked at the second session of the 113th Congress, which stretched from the beginning of January through mid-December 2014. Using a combination of a factors like senators' frequency of tweets, number of followers, and frequency of interacting with these followers, the researchers gave each senator a “power user” score and then looked at how those scores correlated with other data points about the lawmakers and their constituencies.
The study found that the longer a senator has been on Twitter, the more likely they are to be a power user—meaning that early adopters of the platform tend to tweet more. “It is likely that Members who were early Twitter adopters may simply be personally more technologically savvy, both in their eagerness to use social media, as well as their adeptness at it,” the study's authors argue. “Even in cases where all social media management is being delegated to a staff member, technologically savvy Members are probably more likely to encourage interactive use, or at least be less risk-averse about letting staffers experiment with different social media strategies for the office.”
It also found that the most ideologically extreme a senator, the more likely they are to be a heavy tweeter. The effect of ideology on Twitter use was stronger than for any other measure examined in the study. This works in tandem with the findings about early adopters because the moderate lawmakers were less likely to be early adopters than people on the far left or far right.
The authors speculate the more ideologically extreme lawmakers may attractive constituencies outside of the geographic area they represent, making the internet-wide broadcasting ability to Twitter especially attractive.
Another factor that affects Twitter use is, unsurprisingly, having a social media staff. Senators with full-time staffers concentrating on social media tweet more than those who don't. More unexpected, however, was state population. “ As the population of the state increased” the study reads, “Senators were more likely to have more influence on Twitter.”
While Twitter is an important way for lawmakers to get their message out to the public, it also works the other way—as an information-gathering tool. A report released last year by the nonprofit Congressional Management Foundation found that it only took about 30 well-timed tweets from constituents directed at a lawmaker's Twitter account to get someone on that legislator's staff to start paying attention to a specific issue.