Twitter Reality: The Republicans Are Crushing the Democrats When it Comes to Tweeting
When Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, the press dubbed him “social networking king.” As the 2010 mid-term congressional elections approach, not one Democratic member of Congress comes close donning that crown – which, if present trends continue, may next be worn by a Republican.
In 2008, the Obama campaign built huge followings on social networking platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, and accrued millions of views on YouTube. And that wasn’t all of it: Supporters flocked to the campaign’s own custom-built social network, my.barackobama.com, which allowed Obama enthusiasts to create profiles, access organizing tools, and connect with other Obama supporters and volunteers in their areas.
But nearly two years later, it has become apparent that Obama’s new media successes are not echoed by the Democratic Party in Congress. In the 111th Congress, it’s the Republicans who have truly figured out how to succeed in social media – and unless Democrats amplify their new media efforts, it’s hard to see how they keep their House majority in 2011.
According to Democratic officials, 108 House Democrats (of a total of 255) have Twitter accounts Facebook pages exist for 178 House Democrats, and 204 House Democrats have YouTube channels. On the Republican side, officials confirm that there are 130 House Republicans (out of a total 178) on Twitter, 166 on Facebook, and 178 on YouTube.
The raw numbers are deceiving; social media activity by the two parties is not as evenly matched as it appears. Republicans are dominating in the categories that matter: they have more followers, they’re more active, and they are more in sync with each other. According to TweetCongress, a Web site that tracks congressional activity on Twitter, the most active Twitter account in Congress is the Senate Republicans' Twitter handle, Senate_GOPs, which puts out an average of 7.85 tweets per day. Of the most active Twitter handles for members of Congress, the top 10 are all Republicans. And of the Congressional Twitter handles with the most followers, nine of the top 10 are Republicans -- the only exception is Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
On YouTube, eight of the top 10 channels among members of Congress belong to GOP members -- and Republicans surpassed Democrats in total video views in 2009, according to industry analyst TubeMogul.
At the leadership level, the disparity is especially glaring: House GOP Leader John Boehner is regularly active on Facebook, two Twitter accounts (@JohnBoehner and @GOPLeader), and a YouTube channel. Since joining Twitter in 2007, Boehner has amassed well over 50,000 Twitter followers and posts several updates each day. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, by contrast, has just under 9,000 Twitter followers, and has posted only 53 tweets since joining Twitter only this spring. And on Facebook, the disparity is downright amazing: Pelosi has a mere 23,291 Facebook fans while Boehner currently has 115, 454.
In fact, the social-media scales have tipped so far in the GOP’s favor that Rep. Boehner issued a statement in January 2010 declaring: “PWNED: House GOP Dominates Twitter, YouTube, Social Media in Congress.” The statement included research showing that more House Republicans user Twitter than Democrats, that Republicans’ YouTube videos regularly outperform those of the Democrats.
Boehner’s claim was then assessed by the nonpartisan site PolitiFact, which confirmed that Boehner’s statement was true: House Republicans truly are dominating in the social media space.
You’ve Got to Have “Friends”
It’s tempting to brush all of this off as having all the significance of a high-school popularity contest. Why does it matter who can count more digital “friends”? There are elections to be won and legislation to be passed: what purpose does it serve to engage in a competition of numbers, other than to puff up the egos of a few members of Congress? Does it add any real value?
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.