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20 Tweeting Style Plays a Large Role in Shaping the Relationship Between Politicians and the Public

NYU Center for Data Science
We live in an unprecedented time of connectivity, due in large part to the increasing presence of social media in our daily lives. Therefore, it is no surprise that platforms for instant access and communication, like Twitter, have become very popular among politicians and elected officials as channel to connect with constituents.

Despite even the best of intentions, however, a recent study from Southern Illinois University showed two things: that if not directed or framed effectively, a politician's tweets on the issues can not only elicit a negative response with the public, but that this negative response can also disillusion users from engaging in dialogue about these issues or use Twitter as a source for information in the future.

Politicians Who Engage With Users on Twitter, Rather Than Broadcast Information Receive Better Reviews

In Lyons' and Veenstra's study, How (Not) to Talk on Twitter: Effects of Politicians' Tweets on Perceptions of the Twitter Environment, the researchers identify engagement as the main metric for measuring the effectiveness of tweets posted by politicians.

In the context of online interaction, engaged communication can be classified as direct communication between two parties. Conversely, politicians who use Twitter as a one-way broadcast platform are more accurately categorized as disengaged communicators.

In order to measure the significance of engagement, participants in Lyons' and Veenstra's study were shown a series of fake tweets based on real tweets sent by congress-members and the public in regards to the 2014 Farm Bill. Afterwords, they were presented with a series of statements, with which they were asked to agree or disagree. Analysis of the results led researchers to conclude, with 99.999% confidence, that evaluations of a politician will be more positive when said politician engages personally with other Twitter users.

A Poor Evaluation of a Politician's Tweets Carries Over To Other Users Discussing the Same Topic

The findings in Lyons' and Veenstra's study show that politicians who employ the "broadcasting" technique on Twitter not only received poor evaluations, but that these negative evaluations also carried over to unaffiliated users discussing the same topic. This phenomena, where reactions to one aspect of a multimedia object or post carry over to other aspects of the same object or post, is known as intramedium interaction.

Twitter's Conversation-Thread Structure Can Reduce Future Willingness To Take Part in Political Deliberation

Lyons and Veenstra noted that the particular way in which Twitter conversations are structured also has an affect on the perception of Twitter as a source for constructive discussion and information. The study showed that if the original tweet from a politician is viewed poorly, then the entire conversation follows suit. For those reading, but not participating in the discussion, this development can also reduce their willingness to participate in or read political discussion on Twitter in the future.

Although he sees Twitter to be an adequate source for political information, Jasper Surrett, a senior Persian and Government & Politics student at the University of Maryland, explains that he does not find the social networking platform to be a conducive medium for political discourse.


Though users like Jasper might not depend on social media for their news, politicians cannot afford to disengage those who do, especially when platforms like Facebook and Twitter are poised to become the new political battleground. A study from the Pew Research Center found that 16% of US adults actively used Twitter. In addition, half of those users claimed that they used Twitter as a source for news. While these numbers seem large, Twitter is only the fourth largest social media site amongst US adults; Facebook ranks first. Nearly two-thirds of US adults use Facebook, with half of those users also using it as a news source.

A Case Study of the 2016 US Presidential Election: Trump's Use of Twitter to Engage Public Gives Him the Edge

The findings of this study were  consistent with regards to analysis of the tweeting strategies used by the three leading candidates during the 2016 US presidential campaign. According to a separate report from the Pew Research Center, the campaigns of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump all averaged nearly 11-12 tweets per day during the 2016 presidential cycle. Although all three candidates maintained active social media accounts, Donald Trump's tweets received much more attention; Trump averaged nearly 6000 retweets per tweet, whereas Clinton and Sanders averaged only 1500 and 2500, respectively; this discrepancy can be easily explained by analyzing the engagement strategies of the candidates.

According to the same study, 78% of retweets from Donald Trump's account were of members of the general public, compared to 0% and 2% for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Although divisive and unbecoming at times, Donald Trump's campaign would not have had the same reach or impact were it not for the engagement strategy he employed on Twitter.

In their bookPolitics and the Twitter Revolution, Parmelee and Bichard conclude that by making more of an effort to reply to and consult their followers, politicians can make themselves seem more valuable and compatible to their followers' political needs.

To learn more about the research questions, hypotheses posed, or methods used by Lyons and Veenstra in their study, see How (Not) to Talk on Twitter: Effects of Politicians' Tweets on Perceptions of the Twitter Environment.

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