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Twitter Reality: The Republicans Are Crushing the Democrats When it Comes to Tweeting

Democrats in Congress failed to learn the lesson of Obama's use of social media to win the presidency. Republicans, however, were paying attention.

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It does, and wise Hill staffers understand why it pays to be social media-savvy. Social media, one source in Congress told me, “allows us to bypass the traditional media filter and speak directly to the public in a place where they’re actually listening to us.” And, he added, it can give his office “free attention when you can’t otherwise command media attention.” Social media platforms offer politicians a way to cut out the middle man of the traditional press corps engage with citizens directly. Citizens can see their representative’s entire, unfiltered, unedited message and they often like it better than what they’re getting from the press. Studies show Americans now trust social media more than traditional media, and that’s where they’re more likely to seek out their news.

While traditional media outlets struggle to maintain their audiences, Facebook hosts 500 million people and more than 100 million are on Twitter. So for most elected officials, a large number of their constituents are already there; it’s up to them to engage with those constituents and activate those supporters.

So how do you get the rest of Congress to participate? Maybe, as one staffer for a prominent Republican House member told me: “Shame them into it.” Convincing many old-school lawmakers who have been in Congress for years that they should worry about their number of Facebook friends has been an uphill battle for staffers, but Republicans find that leading by example works -- and Boehner, as the GOP leader, does that by updating his Facebook page nearly every day and his Twitter feed several times each day.

In the spring, both the House Republicans and the House Democrats hosted new media competitions in an effort to spur House members in their respective parties to accumulate more Facebook fans, Twitter followers, and YouTube subscribers. The Democrats, holding their competition in June , acquired a total of 43,000 new fans from all three platforms. Republicans accrued approximately 42,100 new fans.

In the new-media-driven landscape, many citizens get their news online first. We’re plugged in most of our waking hours – whether we’re online while sitting at a desk all day, or connected through Blackberrys and iPhones. We’re not likely to wait until the evening news, or the next day’s paper, for big news items; they’ll make their way to us somehow through our networks of emails, text messages, tweets, and status updates.

High unemployment rates and a troubled economy have put Congressional Democrats on defense going into November’s elections, with many pundits already speculating that Democrats will lose their majority. Republicans are already making social media a key part of their midterm strategy. Without a robust social-media strategy, Democrats run the risk of looking detached from the harsh realities lived by many Americans, while Republicans continue to communicate directly with their “friends” and “followers,” even as they approach the voting booth, iPhone in hand.

Nisha Chittal is a freelance writer focusing on politics, media, and technology. Her work has appeared in The American Prospect, Politics Daily, Ms. magazine, and NPR.org. She also regularly writes about political media for Mediaite.com.