Since the microblogging Web site Twitter launched in 2006, tens of millions of people have logged on and churned out billions of 140-character messages called tweets. And Congress has certainly embraced the trend. In fact, by early last year, some 20 Members were using the site, according to Tweet Congress, which monitors Members Twitter use. The current count, the group says, is 162 (plus 16 committees and seven caucuses).
But computer-savvy political junkies already know that. Whether politicians are using Twitter to its full potential is another matter entirely.
Twitter is wonderful and it allows you to blast information out very quickly, said Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), one of the networking tools early adopters. Finally, America is achieving real-time democracy in a way that Mr. Jefferson would have loved.
At its best, Twitter is a transparent forum for an unmediated exchange of ideas and ideals, and at its worst, a mouthpiece for narcissistic frivolities. It can be used for one-to-one, one-to-many or many-to-one information sharing. And in Congress, tweets run the gamut. Political birdwatchers can, on any given day, witness Members fielding constituents questions or simply blasting one-way public relations hits.
Media in general can be used for engagement or to be boring, said Dan Gillmor, digital media professor at Arizona State University. For some [Members], theres a general desire to connect with constituents and others with social conversational media. Im sure that for some, its a completely cynical marketing exercise.
Congressional Twitter Caucus
Republican Members outnumber Democrats 2 to 1 on Twitter, according to Tweet Congress. By last count, including committees and caucuses, 123 Republicans tweet compared with 61 Democrats and one Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.). Those figures are broken down further in a new report called Twongress, released this month by blogger and public relations executive Mark Senak. Senak found that, as of the beginning of January, only 132 Members actively used their accounts: 89 Republicans and 43 Democrats.
In the Senate, that includes 14 Republicans and 11 Democrats. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is the most popular user in Congress with almost 1.6 million followers. The next-most-followed Member is Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) with about 35,000, then Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) with more than 28,000. McCains numbers almost certainly have to do with his presidential run, Senak wrote. President Barack Obama, after all, has more than 3 million followers.
In the House, the numbers are more one-sided. Active GOP Representatives outnumber Democrats 75 to 32. Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) leads the pack with almost 19,000 followers, and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) trails him with about 17,000. In fact, only one Democrat is in the top 10 on the House list Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio). Just two are in the top 20. The other is Rep. Neil Abercrombie (Hawaii).
Strategy Vs. Personality
Establishing a robust Twitter feed is a matter of digital philosophy, and there seem to be two divergent paths. On one side, a top-down social media strategy translates to an aggressive House Republican presence, say GOP operatives. On the other side are Members like McCaskill who strive for a more idiosyncratic approach.