Politicians' Tweets Are Mostly Self-Promotional, Researchers Say

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.

"It's so easy to type 140 characters," Grimes said. "You don't think about it. You just send it."

Members of Congress spent just 7 percent of their time interacting with citizens, according to the U-Md. researchers. The team reviewed every congressional Twitter post through February. They also reviewed all postings in June, when Congress was in session, and in August, when it was not.

The researchers concluded that Twitter has yet to fulfill the promise of bringing elected leaders closer to their constituents. A Web site called TweetCongress has been promoting Twitter as a means "to get our men and women in Congress to open up and have a real conversation with us."

The researchers rate Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) the best tweeter in her chamber and Rep. John Culberson (R-Tex.) tops in his.

McCaskill has the second-most followers among congressional tweeters (more than 32,000), trailing Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has more than 1.3 million. She says she reads all her Twitter correspondence. Her page is a compendium of personal replies to constituents and snippets of life that sound authentic. Here's one from earlier this month: Yes @tigeranniemac that was me at Target in the soap aisle. You shoulda said hi. Was with my daughter Lily. We're very friendly.

Culberson has the most active Twitter site in Congress. Like McCaskill, he engages regularly with his constituents on Twitter, and he has used his page to challenge the Democratic leadership, as he did in this July post: Pelosi regularly turns off the microphone on the House floor, shuts off amends, & debate, shuts out all public sunlight, & gets away w it.

Culberson was an early tweeter and considers himself "an active proselytizer for social media among my colleagues." That may partly explain why the U-Md. researchers found that Republicans outnumbered Democrats on Twitter 2-1.

Culberson sees a coming revolution in online politics. But it might not happen on Twitter. Lately, the Texan has been spending more time on Facebook.

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