WASHINGTON – Eight of 10 members of Congress are tweeting and using Facebook, but only a handful use the social media sites to reach out to one of their most elusive constituent groups – Millennials, according to some experts.
Although young people live online, simply adopting the latest technology isn’t enough to reach them, say leaders of youth political organizations and social media experts. Too often, lawmakers use social media tools as one-way communication touting their latest talking points.
By the numbers
Republicans have a 48-seat majority in the House. But on Twitter, they have a much bigger edge, out-tweeting Democrats 2-to-1. A Republican, Sen. John McCain — @SenJohnMcCain, is the most followed congressman on Twitter with 1.73 million followers. House Speaker John Boehner comes in second with a combined 366,000 followers on his speaker — @SpeakerBoehner — and district — @JohnBoehner — accounts. The Democrats trail badly. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — @NancyPelosi — is the most followed Democrat with 83,000 followers.
Other congressional social media trivia:
• Rep. Darrell Issa — @DarrellIssa — , R-San Diego, is the most frequent tweeter, averaging 13.6 tweets per day.
• McCain also has the most Facebook “likes” with 875,000. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-St. Cloud, comes in second with 270,000.
• Boehner has tweeted the most, with 8,783 tweets since he opened his first account in April 2007.
• Boehner was the first member of the 112th Congress to join Twitter. He joined in April 2007. He also follows the most people: about 30,000.
• Two-thirds of congressional tweeters predominately use Twitter.com directly. The other third uses Twitter applications. The most commonly used application is TweetDeck, with 12.7 percent of congressional offices using the application more often than not.
• The most popular day of the week to tweet on Capitol Hill is Wednesday. One member, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher — @DanaRohrabacher — R-Huntington Beach, tweets most on Sundays. He also replies the most often: 56.4 percent of his tweets are replies.
• Rep. Steve Pearce — @RepStevePearce — R-Roswell, retweets the most often: 46.5 percent. The congressman has retweeted @westerncaucus 15 times since January.
• Boehner is the most retweeted member of Congress by other members: 40 members retweet the House speaker more than anyone else.
• 60 members with active accounts have never replied.
• 10 members follow no one.
Andrew Foxwell, manager of marketing and new media at iConstituent, a firm assisting congressional offices with constituent outreach, said lawmakers need to tweet back and respond to Facebook comments.
“Social media has gone from a publishing platform to a really interactive space,” Foxwell said. “Members of Congress are responding to real comments in real time. You have to interact. That’s the added value of social media.”
Three-quarters of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 use social media, and one-third of those are going online to connect with government officials, according to Aaron Smith, a research specialist with The Pew Internet and American Life Project.
Meanwhile, 433 congressmen — 81 percent — use Twitter, and 441 members — 83 percent — use Facebook.
Angela Peoples of Campus Progress, a progressive youth advocacy group, said social media is about engagement.
“It’s important to be genuine,” Peoples said. “We want to know how you’re feeling. If you’re frustrated with the process, share that with your social media tools.”
Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote agrees.
“Have a real conversation, talk about the issues and engage them [young constituents]in authentic ways,” she said. “Be yourself, use the technology and people will write back.”
Foxwell said social media should be a catalyst for political dialogue.
“It’s what I call a 360-degree conversation,” he said. “The ultimate you could have is that somebody gets an email or e-newsletter from their representative. Then, they start following that representative on Facebook or Twitter, they ask a question and the representative responds back. Then you’re having a real experience, with a person.”
Who’s doing well?
Advocacy groups for young people say these four members of Congress are using social media effectively:
SEN. CLAIRE McCASKILL, D-Mo.
Twitter name: clairecmc
Number of Facebook “likes”: 10,000
Number of Twitter followers: 58,000
Funnel cake and the debt ceiling. Two very different topics, yet both are mentioned on McCaskill’s Twitter page. Her last tweet during the debt ceiling debate: “Taking a blanket and pillow to the Capitol. (hash)neveragoodsign.”
McCaskill’s office says the senator is not only responsible for the messages coming from clairecmc, her personal account, but she also responds to dozens of Facebook posts and Tweets each week.
When McCaskill exceeds the 140-character maximum on Twitter, she occasionally turns to Tumblr.
The topic of a recent blog post: Why she is not following you on Twitter. The reason: time. “I could take the easy route and say I’m following thousands of people,” it says. “But that would feel dishonest because I really would not have the time to read all of their tweets.”
Regardless of whether McCaskill is following you on Twitter, she still lands in the top 10 members of Congress for the highest number of Twitter followers.
SEN. JOHN BOOZMAN, R-Ark.
Twitter name: JohnBoozman
Number of Facebook “likes”: 4,000
Number of Twitter followers: 7,000
Boozman has a new method for responding to constituents: video. The first two episodes of “From the Mailbag” feature the senator addressing questions from Arkansas residents on camera.
While he takes the spotlight in his five-minute YouTube clips, his press staff members are behind the scenes typing Twitter and Facebook posts. Communications staffer Sara Lasure says using multiple platforms is common for Boozman’s office. A review of his online efforts shows website blog entries generally are posted several times a week and tweets are usually posted at least once a day.
Which platform does Boozman prefer? His Twitter followers outnumber his Facebook “likes” almost twofold, but Lasure says Facebook adds a personal touch and connects to his home base.
“Facebook is more Arkansas-oriented,” Lasure said. “Twitter is kind of the gamut of people who follow us.”
REP. PAUL RYAN, R-Wis.
Twitter name: RepPaulRyan
Number of Facebook “likes”: 82,000
Number of Twitter followers: 72,000
Ryan tweets more than about 250 other members of Congress who are on Twitter, posting an average of 2.3 tweets a day. He also leads most colleagues in popularity, placing in the top 10 members of Congress for the most Facebook “likes” and Twitter followers. Yet the man behind the House budget plan for dealing with the deficit and debt follows just one Twitter account, NationalDebt.
Press secretary Kevin Seifert says Ryan’s primary hub for getting his message out is his website, which features regular updates from the office and a prominent invitation to “Join Paul on Facebook.”
Searching for videos? Find them on his website or YouTube page, where Ryan has more than 200 videos and about 2,500 subscribers.
Ryan does not have a designated social media staffer but manages his own Twitter account with help from his office. Seifert says social media allow the congressman to share information with people who don’t have the opportunity to speak to him face to face.
REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-Calif.
Twitter name: NancyPelosi
Number of Facebook “likes”: 45,000
Number of Twitter followers: 83,000
The House minority leader says if you aren’t on Facebook, you might as well be faxing your press releases. According to one of her aides, not only is Pelosi a huge advocate for social media, but she was the first member of Congress to sign up for YouTube, in 2006.
About once a month, Pelosi’s office holds technology sessions, which have featured training for House Democrats in Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare. In March, her office hosted a “Speed Geeking” event, where House members had a chance to use a variety of social media tools and learn why they are important for constituent outreach. On the training docket for the fall: Google Plus.
An aide in the Pelosi office says one of her favorite social media activities is looking at who is mentioning her on Twitter because it gives her real-time feedback.
Despite the fact that more than 80 percent of Congress is on Facebook and Twitter, only a handful communicate with Millennials in a meaningful way.
“I think there is room for improvement with everyone across the board, no matter where you are ideologically, in talking to young people,” said Ron Meyer of Young America’s Foundation, a conservative youth advocacy group.
Meyer says Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., (72,000 Twitter followers) is doing a better job than most in reaching 18-29 year-olds through social media.
“Congressman Ryan is usually pretty good with coming up with good video to post on Facebook and YouTube,” Meyer said. “[He] tries the hardest and is doing the most effective job right now.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (84,000 Twitter followers) also gets it, Peoples said.
“[She] is a great example of somebody who has a good Twitter following, and when she tweets something a lot of people respond to that,” Peoples said.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., (58,000 Twitter followers) also is an effective social media user, Peoples said.
“She’s really in it for Missouri … and it comes out in her tweets,” Peoples said.
What does Congress say?
While some political organizations say most members of Congress need to improve their youth outreach, the lawmakers think they are wired in.
According to a 2011 report by the Congressional Management Foundation called #SocialCongress, about one-third of congressional staff said they were among the first to use new communication tools. Of those, almost 90 percent felt social media enabled their offices “to reach people they were not reaching before.”
“One of the most useful mediums for connecting with this [young]demographic is through Twitter and Facebook,” said Vincent Perez, communications director for Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso. “Our fan base and followers is growing every week, and we feel this is an easy and effective way to connect with constituents.”
Like many legislators, the congressman occasionally posts his own updates, but has his staff write the majority of Facebook and Twitter updates.
Social media alone isn’t enough
Facebook and Twitter use are important, “but that alone does not comprise a youth strategy,” Rock the Vote’s Smith said. “It’s like saying, ‘Well, I went on BET so I’ve now reached the African-American community.”
Seventy-seven percent of respondents from the #SocialCongress survey said attending events in a member’s district or state is very important to understand constituent’s views and opinions. Only 8 percent said Facebook, and 4 percent for Twitter, was very important.
“Young people are motivated by interactive encounters, opportunities to ask questions and exchange ideas rather than just receive messages,” said Peter Levine of The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement’s director Peter Levine. That personal, face-to-face connection can mean more Facebook fans or Twitter followers for a member.
The Internet as a substitute
But when face time isn’t possible, Facebook works.
“The main thing voters fixate on is that it allows them to feel a more personal connection to the candidates or the issues or the campaigns that they are interested in,” Aaron Smith said.
According to Smith’s study, 31 percent of Internet users watched a video, signed up for email alerts, read a blog, followed, became a fan or received text messages from a government agency or official.
Twenty percent of those have posted a comment.
More and more offices are understanding interactivity is key. Said Susan Sullam of Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin’s office: “With more than 5,000 followers, Twitter is our most visible medium.”