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Politics of Social Media: A New Way to be in the Know About Government & Election Campaigns

WUIS/Illinois Issues

If you are trying to keep tabs on the race for governor in Illinois, online social media platforms are some of the best places to do it. 

Venture capitalist Bruce Rauner officially announced his bid for the governor’s office in a video uploaded on YouTube and broadcast via his social media profiles. He also announced his running mate in a video posted on his Facebook page. His Republican primary opponents, Kirk Dillard and Dan Rutherford, announced their picks for lieutenant governor first on Twitter and the photo-sharing site Instagram. Rutherford began dropping hints about his pick on Twitter a few days before revealing his choice. 

Political campaigns, interest groups, elected officials, legislative caucuses and government entities are all taking to social media to reach out to citizens and voters. What was once considered a novelty or a place for teenagers to gossip and adults to waste time is now a key component to running for office, as well as government outreach. 

Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook provide a direct line to constituents. Twitter lets users share their thoughts in no more than 140 characters and can provide links to other content. Facebook users post personal details, pictures and videos directly to their profiles. Candidates can make announcements without having to worry about pointed questions from reporters after they give their spiel or sweating and stammering in front of television cameras. 

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 72 percent of adults who regularly use the Internet also use a social networking site. The number of older users has roughly tripled in the last four years. In 2009, only 13 percent of Internet users 65 and older used social media. This year, it is 43 percent. Still, younger people are more likely to engage on social media sites. An estimated 83 percent of Internet users between the ages of 18 and 29 use social media platforms. According to Pew, 22 percent of online adults used social media for political activities, including connecting to a campaign, during the 2010 midterm elections, and 73 percent used social media to find news or information about the elections. 

Citizens are also using social media to keep tabs on government. According to Pew, 40 percent of Internet users have gone online to find out information about government activities, and 31 percent have done so through a social media site. These users are looking for raw data, such as government spending information, the language of proposed legislation or campaign donation disclosures. While that information is rarely posted directly to social media platforms, links on the sites can serve as portals to documents that could otherwise be difficult to access on often less-than-user-friendly government websites. Social media also makes it easy for users to share such information with others in their networks. 

Those who use social media to remain politically connected and civically engaged are much more likely to do both offline, too. They are 85 percent more likely to sign a petition, 83 percent more likely to make a political contribution and 67 percent more likely to contact government officials about issues. 

A recent study found that Twitter popularity could indicate votes in real life. Researchers at Indiana University Bloomington set out to see if social media is an accurate predictor of the political behavior of voters. They compared a random sample of tweets that mentioned candidates from August 1 to November 1, 2010, with the results of competitive 2010 U.S. House races. The group found that the number of times a candidate was mentioned on Twitter correlated to the votes he or she received. The research controlled for “incumbency, district partisanship, media coverage of the race, time and demographic variables such as the district’s racial and gender composition.” Their model was able to predict the winner in 404 out of 435 races. “Using a massive archive of billions of randomly sampled tweets stored at Indiana University, we extracted 542,969 tweets that mention a Democratic or Republican candidate for Congress in 2010. For each congressional district, we computed the percentage of tweets that mentioned these candidates. We found a strong correlation between a candidate’s “tweet share” and the final two-party vote share, especially when we account for a district’s economic, racial and gender profile,” Fabio Rojas, a sociology professor at Indiana University, wrote in a column for the Washington Post

Researchers were surprised to find that the content of the tweets and whether they reflected positively on candidates did not seem to matter. “Yes, we were surprised by the results, as we expected that we would need to look at the sentiment of the tweets, i.e., whether they were supportive of the candidate or not, to find an effect. What we suspect is going on is that more competitive candidates attract more attention — both positive and negative,” says Joseph DiGrazia, a doctoral candidate at Indiana University. DiGrazia says that some factors could throw off the model. If, for instance, a candidate was the subject of an elevated number of tweets because he or she was at the center of a political scandal, those communications might not predict support at the polls. He says the group applied its model to the 2012 election with similar results. 

This news might seem like music to the ears of political strategists. More tweets equal more votes, right? But DiGrazia says it is probably not that simple. The group did not look at whether behavior online was influencing voters’ actions offline, but he says it is unlikely. “We don't believe Twitter is having much of a causal effect on election outcomes. Although our study doesn’t test this directly, we suspect that Twitter is picking aspects of public opinion, not driving it.”

But the direct line to potential voters can cut both ways for political figures if they make a mistake. Just ask failed New York mayoral candidate and former U.S. Rep. Anthony Wiener. When he was still serving in the U.S. House, he accidentally sent out a lewd picture of himself as a public tweet to his more than 46,000 followers on Twitter, when he had intended to send it as a direct message to one person. Wiener first blamed hackers but quickly admitted his mistake. He tried to rehabilitate his image and run for mayor, but during his campaign, more pictures surfaced online. He admitted he had continued to have illicit communications with women even after his original mea culpa. Wiener’s mistake likely boiled down to a one-letter typo. Users can type “D” in front of another person’s username to send a direct message. But if they use an “@,” the message is public, and anyone can read it. Since his indiscretions were so widespread, it is probable that they would have caught up with him at some point, even if he had not made that first slip. Still, Wiener’s is perhaps the most infamous cautionary tale of a politician once viewed as being savvy on social media — the New York Times described him as a technophile — making a career-wrecking error online. Less extreme examples of public figures making comments on social media that others find offensive or out of touch pop up nearly every week. And those gaffes tend to spread across platforms that are designed for sharing information, quickly and widely. 

Still, some politicians are willing to risk the pitfalls of social media to create a more personal connection with constituents. Rutherford, the state treasurer and Republican candidate for governor, has perhaps the best-known social media presence of state level politicians in Illinois. Rutherford does his own tweeting and updates his more than 7,300 followers on his daily life, including his exercise schedule and household tasks. Rutherford says that people tell him they enjoy seeing aspects of his personal life and knowing that a statewide elected official does the same things they do. “I really was getting so much feedback about how, ‘Wow you’re like a real person,’ and, ‘My gosh, your freezer looks just like mine.’”

Rutherford has been called out for over-sharing at times, such as when he posed a picture of himself changing a toilet seat in a dress shirt. He included the warning, “I need to tell you that when cleaning around the bowl to be sure & take off your neck tie; if not it will definitely end up in the bowl water when you lean over.” He says he is not deterred by critics, who could just stop following his social media profiles if they don’t like his content. “My response was, ‘OK, you opted to follow me.’” He says that if he were to be elected governor, he would continue his social media style because he thinks people want a peek into the lives of their elected officials. “I believe that the public of Illinois will want to know, does the governor go out and jog? Does the governor have dinner with his mother? Does the governor cook soup and casseroles on a cold winter evening at home?”

Some lawmakers are also testing the waters of social media by handling the bulk of their own presence on Twitter or Facebook. Evanston Democratic Sen. Daniel Biss says, “What I like about it is, it’s kind of a real-time informal quasi-public conversation.” Biss says he enjoys interacting with the public and members of the news media on Twitter. “I guess there are some people who are seeing kind of a more informal authentic side of me than you get from a press release or from a public speech.” Biss, who has a dry and sometimes snarky sense of humor, says he gets a second opinion on some of his tweets to ensure he does not offend. “I will multiple times a week show my wife a draft tweet, and be like, ‘Should I tweet this?’ And she will say, ‘Yeah. No, don’t tweet this.’”

But Biss and Rutherford are not the norm. Most Illinois officials generally let their staff handle their social media communications. Michael Cheney, a communications professor at the University of Illinois Springfield, has been studying the social media behavior of politicians by tracking their tweets, Facebook posts, followers and online “friends.” Cheney found that many politicians’ individual profiles are very active during election season, but after a win, “their account goes dead and nothing will happen until they have to run again.” Most social media traffic coming from Illinois lawmakers is dominated by a few very active voices. The most vocal of them are the legislative political caucuses. “They’re out there regularly, and they tend to dominate.” 

The only caucus that does not have its own social media presence is the House Democrats. “A lot of that is because the individual members do those things, and that seems to work well,” says Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan. Cheney’s study found that the typical communication is not an open and interactive conversation between Illinoisans and their elected officials. His findings suggest “that the role of social media is not [a] freewheeling discussion by various voices and parties in governance. Instead, social media communication in the Illinois legislature is characterized by one-way communication by just a handful of users in the Illinois legislature who largely communicate about activities and information.”

John Patterson, communications director for the Illinois Senate Democrats, says he views the caucus’ social media presence on sites such as Facebook and Twitter as a way for people to keep up on what their senators are doing and be aware of things such as local events that may not always make headlines. “People are always kind of wondering what do state employees do, and I would like people to know that throughout the day, we’re doing all kinds of stuff, and we should have that reflected in what’s going out on Twitter, going up on Facebook or going on our websites,” he says. Patterson says that Senate Democratic communications staff started off on those platforms because it seemed kind of obligatory, but he says that in the last few years, they have really been working to step up their social media game. “In the last two years, we’ve had a big focus on trying to figure out how to use them as communication tools so that we just don’t have a Twitter account or a Facebook account, [but] that we’re actually using them as part of a communications plan and try to use them to grow an audience.” He says that providing information as basic as updates on committee scheduling, which are generally slow or do not happen on the legislature’s state-run website, helped to grow the caucus’ following online. “We quickly noticed a lot of people, particularly lobbyists and reporters, following our Twitter account so that they would know what’s going on in committee rooms, so they knew where they had to be at what time.”

Vicki Crawford, spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, says her staff is also working to bring people information they may not be getting elsewhere. “We know that most people — good or bad — they’re not getting their news necessarily through traditional media as much as they had been. So we have set up a presence on Facebook and Twitter, and this last year we set up a caucus blog.” 

Both Patterson and Crawford come from a background in news, and they say it influences their social media work now. “I’m not the news media. We’re trying to present our case, [but] we sure work awfully hard to make sure everything we’re putting out there is accurate and presenting it in the best way we can,” Crawford says. She and Patterson say that as young staff members are hired and younger lawmakers are elected, social media becomes more and more of a given. “I have a young staff that does this all in their spare time, anyway, and so it’s a chance to bring what they’re already skilled at to the state and make it cutting edge,” Patterson says. “Increasingly, we have members who already do this and expect to be able to do it when they get to the state.”

They both say they are always on the lookout for the next trend and the newest social media platform that will allow lawmakers to better communicate with the public. Patterson says he asks staff members: “What else is out there? What else can we do? What works? What are your kids using at home? ’Cause that’s the next thing, and we want to stay in trend with that, too. Bring it back to work and see if there’s a way for us to use it.”

Illinois Issues, November 2013

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