Study Finds Shift in Congressional Social Media Landscape

A new Pew Research Center analysis of Facebook posts and tweets from members of Congress since 2015 shows that Democrats post more but Republicans have more audience engagement.

A Facebook start page is shown on a smartphone in Surfside, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

(CN) — Political discourse on social media has grown since the 2016 presidential campaign cycle began, and the last several years have seen a surge in lawmakers taking to platforms like Twitter and Facebook to reach voters.  

Since 2015, politicians on both sides of the aisle have posted and tweeted more often, and their posts have received increasing interaction, even outside of the high-profile social media users in Congress.

In a Pew Research Center study published Thursday, researchers compiled data from congressional users’ social media accounts, including nearly 1.5 million Facebook posts from 1,388 accounts and more than 3.3 million tweets from 1,362 Twitter accounts.

Using the median member of Congress as the metric, researchers found that more and more private users are interacting with posts from federal lawmakers as the various official accounts post and tweet more often, though the increases differed between Democrats and Republicans.

For example, the median Republican member of Congress tweeted an average of 53 times per month in 2016, which grew to 73 tweets in 2020. Facebook posts from the median Republican lawmaker grew from 37 posts per month in 2016 to 44 posts in 2020.

Democratic lawmakers were even more prolific online — the median Democrat in Congress tweeted 68 times per month on average in 2016, which grew to 130 tweets this year. Facebook posts from the median Democrat also grew from 29 per month in 2016 to 55 per month in 2020.

However, while the median Democratic lawmaker tweets and posts more often than their Republican counterpart, posts from Republican lawmakers receive more interactions from private users. For example, the median Republican received an average of 91 favorites per tweet in 2020, whereas the Democratic counterpart received only 62 favorites, or likes. Similarly, the median Republican received 131 reactions per post on Facebook, while the Democratic counterpart received only 93 reactions.

The sharing of posts across both platforms was far less divergent between Democrats and Republicans, though the median Republican nonetheless enjoyed more retweets and shares (an average of 33 retweets per tweet and 21 shares per Facebook post) than the Democratic counterpart (19 retweets and 14 shares).

Notably, this phenomenon represented an inversion that happened at two different points depending on the platform. On Twitter, the spike in engagement with Republican users happened in December 2019 when the House of Representatives impeached President Donald Trump. On Facebook, the engagement inversion happened nearly a year earlier at the start of the 116th Congress in January 2019.

Patrick van Kessel, senior data scientist at Pew and co-author of the study, said in an interview that while researchers were not able to necessarily characterize the motivations of private users in their interactions with posts from congressional lawmakers, they found that engagement with the median Republican post increased at a higher rate than the number of times the lawmaker posted.

Further, van Kessel explained that this divergence was more pronounced, as compared to Democrats, on Facebook due to partisan demographics. In a 2019 Pew survey, 62% of respondents who used Twitter identified as a Democrat, whereas only 50% of Facebook users said the same.

Van Kessel said that while the study could not necessarily parse engagement at the granular level of individual users, the trends indicated that major political events drove the Republican boost in engagement above all else. He said the study did not delve into the contextual nuance of each social media engagement, but he did explain that not every engagement was created equal.

“Seventy-one percent of the reactions to members of Congress’ posts were likes,” he said, but he explained that users also often picked the anger or laugh reactions, likely to deride those same posts.

However, the most followed users who fell well outside the median lawmaker represented a much larger portion of the overall engagement, and the numbers slightly favored Democrats in that category.

For example, the top 10% of Democratic congressional users represented 17% of the total congressional tweets studied but made up 86% of all favorites and 83% of all retweets. Similarly, Democratic power users represented 18% of total Facebook posts among Democrats but accounted for 86% of reactions and 87% of shares.

In contrast, the top 10% of Republican users represented 19% of all GOP tweets but received 80% of the favorites and 78% of the retweets — slightly lower their Democratic counterparts. Similarly, Republican power users represented 12% of all Facebook posts but received only 54% of the reactions and 70% of the shares.

Democratic examples of these power users are Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont with more than 21 million Twitter followers, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has over 10 million followers, and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, with more than 7 million followers.

Republican examples include Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who has over 5 million followers on Twitter, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, with more than 4 million followers and Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who is followed by over 2 million Twitter users.

The content of individual posts also affected engagement, according to the study. For example, the median Democrat received the most engagement on posts that featured the #NoBillNoBreak hashtag in 2016, which referred to a sit-in by House Democrats demanding gun control.

The median Republican, meanwhile, received the most engagement with posts including the name of Congressman Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who led the House impeachment inquiry of President Trump.  

Democrats and Republicans also typically posted about different issues.

Democrats were most likely to mention words and phrases like “equal pay,” “gun safety” and “LGBT,” whereas their Republican counterparts more often used phrases like “pro-growth,” “bureaucrats” and “illegal immigrant.”

The extensive analysis was a departure from the typical Pew survey, but van Kessel said the study was part of an initiative to delve into politics more deeply. As Twitter and Facebook feature more political posts, the research provides a baseline of data to track political trends as they increasingly present themselves on social media.

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