Study: Congress Not Tweeting About Real Issues

A new study by University of Maryland researchers finds a growing use of Twitter among members of Congress, but that the purpose and content of their messages fall short of improving government transparency.

Jennifer Golbeck, assistant professor, a doctoral student and an undergraduate assistant analyzed more than 5,000 tweets sent by 69 members of Congress in February. They found that House and Senate members were using the social media platform mostly to promote themselves, rather than engage in dialogue with constituents and the public at large.

“Members of Congress were not sharing much new information on Twitter, and there were few posts that improve transparency,” Golbeck says.

The analysis of the tweets, the messages of 140 or fewer characters sent via Twitter, was conducted in the iSchool’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab and the Center for Information Policy and E-Government, and is the first study on Twitter use by Congress, Golbeck says.

She, Justin Grimes, the iSchool doctoral student, and Anthony Rogers, an undergraduate individual studies major, say a full 80 percent of posts to Twitter by congressmen and -women are either links to news articles and press releases, or inform about activities and events like announcing that they are in a meeting, describing what they’re eating and relating their daily workout regimen.

Examples include U.S. Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) tweeting that he “is working to help Iowans as they contend with all of the flooding throughout the state,” or Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) announcing that he “stopped for a quick bite to eat at Sting-Rays in Cape Charles …”.

Of the remaining tweets:

  • 7  percent were related to citizen communication
  • 5  percent to official business
  • 4  percent related to personal messages
  • 3  percent to requesting action
  • 1  percent to internal communication.

“The results allow for a more robust debate over the issue of tweeting and Congress to occur,” says Grimes, who anticipates using the research as part of his Ph.D. dissertation on information policy and e-government.

The study was not an attempt to disprove the value of Twitter, or disprove the value of Congress using Twitter in a glib manner, he says. It “merely tried to understand and document how it is currently being used with the hopes of improving the dialogue and discussion surrounding it.”

Golbeck is trained as a computer scientist and is one of the first researchers in the United States to build algorithms that analyze online social networks like Twitter, Facebook and MySpace. Her research team’s report includes suggestions on how Congress could use these new technologies to improve transparency, accountability and communication with the public. One example: Members of Congress could tweet during debates and committee meetings, allowing the public access to information they might not readily find in the media.

The Maryland researchers hope to present their findings next April at an international human computer interaction conference in Atlanta.

According to comScore, an Internet marketing research firm, more than 21 million people now use Twitter, an almost 27-fold increase within the past 12 months.

Goldbeck found that Twitter use among members of Congress had grown from the 69 legislators her team analyzed in February to 134 in May. The nonprofit site shows 159 members of Congress — 102 Republicans and 57 Democrats — using Twitter.