Twitter encourages senators to favor national over local audience

Last modified January 27, 2021. Published January 27, 2021.
Senators are tweeting their achievements nationwide instead of talking to folks at home. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Senators are tweeting their achievements nationwide instead of talking to folks at home. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

U.S. senators are using Twitter increasingly as a forum to talk about national policy and project “legislative prowess,” pivoting away from local issues faced by their constituents as they build their political brands with the social media platform’s global user base.

According to research from the January 2021 edition of Social Science Quarterly, long-term trends toward a more nationalized political discourse are now impacting how senators choose to communicate to their Twitter followers. This trend could be amplifying the current polarization of American politics, according to author Annelise Russell of the University of Kentucky.

“The patterns of nationalized politics and policy that we see within legislatures and on the campaign trail are extending beyond the institution[s] into lawmakers’ reputation-building behaviors on social media,” she told The Academic Times. That means “that elite polarization on salient issues is being reinforced through social media and spread outward to [senators’] digital networks.”

Russell, an expert on the intersection of media and U.S. politics and policymaking, gathered about 180,000 tweets from lawmakers in the upper chamber of Congress from 2013 and 2015. 

The size of the dataset itself shows the rise of Twitter as a key political forum, she noted, pointing out that by 2015 the average senator tweeted about 1,100 times per year while issuing fewer than 250 press releases over the same period.

To investigate how senators were using the site to message to their followers — and therefore how they were crafting their communication and representation styles — she sorted the tweets according to the priorities they reference.

Tweets were given a “policy” code if they corresponded with one of the 20 major policy topics tracked by the U.S. Policy Agendas Project, while others were classified as “constituent outreach” if they contained references to a senator’s state, town hall meetings, local sports, legislative and local actions they took credit for or direct communication with users. Posts using partisan rhetoric to describe parties and party representatives were tagged as “political.”

Some of the tweets contained multiple priorities and multiple tags, Russell noted.

Senators most often tweeted about their positions on national policy issues, she discovered, and focused less of their Twitter communications on constituent outreach or on partisan political messages. In 2013, for instance, nearly 70% of all senators’ tweets referenced national policy, compared to 50% that involved constituent outreach and just 18% focused on overtly partisan priorities.

Her findings suggest that the way senators use Twitter doesn’t line up with the way newspapers typically discuss politics, or with how many media outlets first thought lawmakers might utilize the platform. 

In reality, many senators are focusing their Twitter outreach on national policy messages at the expense of highlighting local issues or addressing constituents themselves. Russell found a negative correlation on average between the percentage of tweets mentioning policy and the percentage of tweets referencing constituent outreach for both years she studied.

“Typically, the front pages of the newspapers are filled with the horse race of elections and early descriptions of Twitter lauded it for the constituency connection,” she said. “But senators’ Twitter activity suggests that policy is the primary frame for how [they] articulate their style of representation.”

Partly that’s because senators’ Twitter audiences tend to be very different from the voting base that sent them to office. Lawmakers reach a disproportionate number of journalists and activists through the platform, Russell added, and work to tailor their messaging accordingly.

“I think a lot of lawmakers and their staff realize that Twitter is not reality — many would be out of a job already if that were the case — but they also know that the potential for influence on social media makes it a worthwhile endeavor regardless of its representativeness,” she said.

But projecting a policy focus could also help them boost their individual brands with voters, an important objective given the disapproval that Congress faces from much of the American public. By emphasizing legislative expertise and problem-solving in their tweets, Russell noted, senators can “distance themselves from that negative, aggregate image by portraying their [individual] policy prowess and attentiveness on social media.”

This potential reputational boost might be enough to dissuade senators from using Twitter mostly to attack their partisan rivals, according to Russell. Recent research suggests that shows of “negative partisanship” could actually hurt lawmakers in the eyes of voters.

Russell said that while former President Donald Trump has become well-known for using Twitter to attack his perceived political rivals, most senators don’t take the same approach.

“Congress is polarized, and social media isn’t making it any better — but we are incorrectly led to believe that lawmakers are taking partisan shots at their opponents multiple times a day,” she said. “There are some senators, particularly party leaders, for whom it is their job to take on political opponents, but even for the most polarizing figures, partisan attacks or political posturing is only half of their agenda online.”

“While the link between being a good lawmaker and a good communicator is variable, most senators are attempting to walk the fine line of [being] both,” she continued.

The article “Senate Representation on Twitter: National Policy Reputations for Constituent Communication,” published in the January 2021 edition of Social Science Quarterly, was authored by professor Annelise Russell of the University of Kentucky.

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