Congress Synthesis

By: Ahmed Hassanein, Joe O’Hern, Ben Richardson, and Jacob Rosenberg

During President Obama’s address to the joint session of Congress, something interesting occurred. Instead of watching every word Obama said, these Congressmen pulled out their phones and began to use the social networking site, Twitter. In no more than 140 characters, senators like John Culberson (R-Tex), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo) were updating their twitter pages with statuses about this event. The congressman could not wait for the speech to be over. They wanted people to know what they were thinking as the speech was going on that Obama delivered. Some of the twitter messages had actual comments on the speech, “Interesting comment that our ‘confidence is shaken” (Blumenauer, D-Ore). Some were about the Congressman himself, “I am sitting behind Sens Graham and McCain” (Rob Wittman, R-Va).  As the Congressmen that represent Americans have demonstrated, Twitter is a very powerful social networking device that these politicians have latched onto. It’s worthwhile to see how the Congressmen use Twitter and what kind of messages they put on their account.

Since its inception in 2006 Twitter has become an increasingly popular tool for elected officials, particularly Congresspersons and Senators, to communicate with their constituents and the general public. Twitter has been increasing in popularity with roughly 194 congresspersons and senators using a twitter account ( Even though twitter use has been expanding among elected officials, little research has been conducted to determine how elected officials are using twitter and what if any the effects are. While little research has been conducted, research was conducted not by political scientist but by computer scientist at the University of Maryland. They discovered that members of the US Congress use twitter mostly for self promotion (Golbeck, Grimes Rogers 2009). They also discovered that second most popular use of twitter was much in the same way the general public uses twitter. They discuss their daily lives and activities such as where they are going to vacation or where they plan to eat dinner (Golbeck, Grimes Rogers 2009). These messages accounted for about 80% of all congressional twitter messages (Golbeck, Grimes Rogers 2009). The next largest grouping of messages, accounting for about 7%, were messages related to citizen communication (Golbeck, Grimes Rogers 2009). Overall members of the US congress were sharing information they would normally with the press and not really using it as a way to easily and directly communicate with their constituents. On top of the research discussed here there are also websites like congressional140 that offer live streaming of the congressional tweets being posted and information about the members of congress.

For this project, each group was assigned four Democrats and four Republicans to research how these Congressmen and women use twitter and what the constituents are saying about the Congressmen. After dissecting the four different group’s reports, there were some overlapping similarities that were found. Each of the reports was divided into what the actual Congressmen is saying, and what the constituents are saying about that Congressmen. First, there is what the Congressmen says on Twitter. 

Each of the groups coded what the Congressmen or women said on their Twitter account into different categories. It turns out that the category that had the most Congressmen or women coded on was the refer-other category. This category is when the Congressmen tweeted about a policy, website, or an article somewhere else. Most of the tweets in the refer-other category had URLs attached to the tweet. This category was the largest because many Congressmen had links to articles, and policies about healthcare on other sites, and they wanted to make sure that their constituents knew about the articles and what the healthcare bill would include. It turns on later that healthcare is the prevalent issue that most people discuss on Twitter with their Congressmen.

Other categories that many of the Congressmen researched were coded into were policy, local and refer-me. Policy codes were when Congressmen tweeted about a certain policy, and as mentioned above, mostly likely tweeted about healthcare policy. Local codes were when Congressmen tweeted about local issues in their state so their constituents could better understand what’s happening in their city and state. Finally, refer-me codes were when Congressmen tweeted about something they did, like an appearance on a talk show, or asking for money and referring people to their personal website. These categories also had a large number of Congressmen fall into them for obvious reasons. Most congressmen want to make sure that the policies they are promoting are understood so that’s why policy was a big category. Congressmen also like to get reelected and to do that, they need to pay attention to state and local issues to keep their voters happy, so that’s why local was a big category. Finally, along the reelection lines, Congressmen need money and many of them asked people to go to their personal website and make a campaign contribution, which is why, refer-me is a big category. On a side-note, it’s interesting to point out that the Congressmen who were coded the most for the refer-me category were all Republicans and the policy were all Democrats.  

Next, the groups looked at what the constituents had to say about the Congressmen. Again, like the Congressmen, the groups categorized what the constituents had to say into different codes. There were two types of codes: what the major policy that person was tweeting about to their Congressmen and what kind of articulation they were using. For the policy codoes, it turns out to be heavily skewed to one policy: healthcare. Like stated earlier, healthcare is the prevalent issue at the time of these reports, with it being debated in the House. Most constituents were tweeting to the Congressmen about certain aspects of the healthcare bill, questions about who is covered, and asking about progress on the bill. In fact, for Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the entire policy people tweeted to her about was healthcare.

Now for the articulation categories, the biggest was “refer”. This just means that the constituent wanted their Congressmen and other Twitter people to check something else out, usually with a URL attached. This is like the refer-other category in the Congressmen codes. This category was the largest for the articulation codes for the constituents because many people find something on the internet and want to share it with their Congressmen and others, so they tweet what they found. In many cases, the URLs were links to blogs about policies, like healthcare, or videos on certain issues. The other major categories for the articulation codes were insult, praise-policy, and criticism-policy. Insult makes sense as many constituents despised their Congressmen because they are on the different political party, or feel that the Congressmen isn’t doing a good enough job. But, instead of giving actual criticism of what the Congressmen is doing, the constituent would personally insult that Congressmen. Praise and criticism of a policy (healthcare) makes sense as many constituents either agree with the Democrats proposal for healthcare change or don’t want the healthcare bill at all. So, depending on how the constituent feels about healthcare and if they are mentioning a Democrat or Republican Congressmen, the constituent will either praise or criticize that Congressmen’s work on the healthcare bill.

Overall there are several points that were learned in researching the different Congressmen. First and foremost, all the data collected by the five groups were collected between October 9th and November 7th. This is relevant when analyzing spikes in tweet numbers. For example, by overlapping the timelines of the period data was collected against the number of tweets, one will notice that all groups commented on a massive spike in tweets on November 7th which corresponds with the date that Obama’s healthcare bill was introduced to the House. Another overall point was that tweeting seems to be relatively new for congressmen. In fact, all Congressmen began tweeting between 2007 and 2009 with the majority falling in 2009. This could account for the fact that Congressmen don’t use Twitter as often as their constituents. This brings it to the last and most important of the overall points learned of the different group’s reports. Congressmen utilize twitter as a way for their constituents to reach them rather than for them to reach their constituents, this is evident by their very few status updates and outgoing tweets and their massive tweets record from the constituents. This was a pattern repeated with every one of the forty Congressmen that were examined by the five groups.

As shown in this synthesis report, Congressmen and women utilize Twitter in several different ways, and the constituents respond to the Congressmen in different ways too. There are some patterns as discussed in the report, like how Congressmen and the constituents refer to other websites more often than not, and how the constituents also praise or criticize certain policies, like healthcare. People have started to fundamentally grasp the concept of Twitter and have used it to interact and talk about Congressmen, and occasionally, the Congressmen will discuss as well on their Twitter account.


Congress Using Twitter During Obama's Speech

Congress Group #1

Congress Group #2

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