Politicians' Tweets Are Mostly Self-Promotional, Researchers Say

University of Maryland researchers Jennifer Golbeck and Justin Grimes did a study on how members of Congress spend their 140 characters. Video by Daniel de Vise/The Washington Post
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 18, 2009; 3:17 PM

The arrival of Twitter on Capitol Hill has given ordinary citizens access to the candid, real-time thoughts of their elected representatives.

Like this dispatch from Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii): just completed weightlifting workout at the Nuuanu Y.

Or this, from Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa): I will b intrvud on AgriTalk at 10amCST. Pls tune in.

A team of researchers from the University of Maryland plodded through more than 6,000 Twitter postings by members of Congress to study whether the social networking site promoted transparency in politics and dialogue between elected leaders and the public.

They found -- surprise! -- that politicians spend most of their time on Twitter promoting themselves.

Launched in 2006, Twitter allows users to send succinct (no more than 140 characters) reports on their comings, goings and musings. Sixty-nine members of Congress had Twitter accounts by February. The number has since risen to 169. An estimated 21 million people tweet worldwide.

Eighty percent of the congressional Twitter postings reviewed by the U-Md. researchers fell into two categories: links to news articles and press releases, mostly self-serving and readily available elsewhere; and status updates that chronicle the pol's latest trip to the sawmill or the supermarket. The researchers announced their findings this week and hope to present them at an international conference on human-computer interaction in the spring.

"Twitter by its nature is a very self-absorbed service," said Jennifer Golbeck, lead researcher and assistant professor in the university's College of Information Studies. "Politicians are very self-important people."

Many Twitter postings read like very short press releases. We learn from Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), for example, that he is working to help Iowans as they contend with all of the flooding throughout the state. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) advises: On Rachel Maddow right after this commercial break. Tune in!

While few politicians have bared their souls on Twitter, some have nonetheless managed to tweet themselves into trouble.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) caught flak in February when he posted Just landed in Baghdad, inadvertently posing a security risk for his congressional delegation. He drew criticism again in June for likening the tumult in Iran to Republican conflicts with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The irony here, said U-Md. researcher Justin Grimes, is that politicians seem to be putting less thought and deliberation into their Twitter messages, posted for all to see, than they might devote to, say, an old-fashioned e-mail.

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