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UT Professor Sherri Greenberg and her students at the Library of Congress

Matthew Cornelius, Racheal Poole Kane, Elizabeth Joseph, Sherri Greenberg, Noelle Gaughen, Linnea Nasman, and Andrew Phifer. 

For more than a year, Professor Sherri Greenberg of the LBJ School of Public Affairs and 17 of her students researched exactly how and why members of Congress use social media and examined its policy implications and best practices.

To their surprise, they found that the elected officials use social media most often to stake out their positions on issues and not necessarily to campaign or tout their media appearances. Their research, funded by the Library of Congress, will be shared with members of Congress as they try to use new media as effectively as possible.

The group spent more than 900 hours collecting more than 1 million points of data on how members of Congress use social media, “scraping” official congressional Twitter and Facebook accounts during a 59-day period and then coding each update and tweet to define its purpose. Additionally, they reviewed information from official congressional YouTube channels. They then spent months analyzing the data.

In this QandA, Greenberg explains how elected and appointed officials are using social media to engage their constituents

Can you explain your social media research with students?

What we were able to determine from our study is that social media use among Congress has grown exponentially, with 98 percent of Congress using at least one social media platform, and 72 percent using all three of the platforms included in the study.

In total, we looked at over 47,000 original posts on official congressional Facebook and Twitter accounts, and we were able to assign to each post at least one category that demonstrates the post’s purpose. The categories we created were campaigning, official congressional action, position-taking, policy statements, district or state-related information, media appearances, personal and other.

This research was the result of a contract with the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which is the research arm of the Library of Congress. CRS had conducted a small-scale study a few years ago examining only Twitter usage, which gave us some initial information about how Congress had used Twitter previously. But other than that study, there has been very little research in this area.

What did you find?

To our surprise, the highest category for social media postings was position-taking, with media posts being significantly lower, and campaign-related posts being very few. Based on the previous CRS study and our own assumptions, we expected the largest number of posts to be about future TV appearances, for example, or campaign-related posts.

The number of posts on Twitter is almost double that of Facebook. This may account for why position-taking, taking a stance on a policy issue or debate, was so high. The Twitter platform, allowing only 140 characters, seems to lend itself better to those quick position-taking blasts. What this tells us is that the usage of social media by members of Congress has matured as a method of communicating with their constituents.

Why is this kind of hands-on research so important for students?

This real-world work with clients is essential. Our students are working all over the globe in a variety of areas government, nonprofits, consulting firms. In all of these fields our students need to be able to work in teams collaboratively and to have great writing and presentation skills. Students wrote and had the opportunity to present their work, either in Washington, D.C., or Austin directly to CRS, or at an event we held in April.

The event was called “Public Policy in 140 Characters” and was sponsored by the LBJ School’s Center for Politics and Governance, which I direct. In addition to the student panel, we had a panel at the event with elected and appointed officials who talked about their own social media use.

How did CRS, your client, receive the research?

Studying how members of Congress use social media is a new field of study. According to Colleen Shogan, assistant director of the Government and Finance Division for CRS, the research will assist CRS in providing information to members of Congress about this newly emerging technology that is clearly affecting how Congress views its representational duties.

The presentation was well received by CRS, particularly, the breadth and depth of the research.

What’s next for you and your social media research?

I plan to pursue the question of how much social media is being used for dialogue by elected and appointed officials and candidates to engage people one-on-one. How much is social media being used for civic engagement? For instance, in the future, how often will we see a public hearing or committee meeting have its own hash tag, allowing people to engage with public officials and their local, state or national governments via social media. Furthermore, I want to continue examining the policy implications and best uses of social media.