Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube continue to become more and more integrated into the fabric of American culture. For many, they present a more convenient option for communication with friends, family, corporations, and political figures. It’s not unheard of for a tweet to a retail company to be more effective in a customer service interaction than calling customer service or emailing the company directly. In the realm of politics there has been a growing trend to use social media sites to communicate directly with elected officials, or to organize political action. Despite this, American political officials on the state level in particular seem to be lagging behind the overall population in their use of social media as a means to communicate.
We have spent the last year collecting the Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, Flickr, and Picasa social media accounts of elected officials and have been incorporating them into the Cicero API. While for some time Cicero has contained social media information, this latest effort has been an attempt to be even more encompassing in regards to this kind of data.
This is by no means an exhaustive collection of social media data. In this effort we have collected accounts that are easily accessible. For example, social media that could be found via the official’s legislative webpage, their own personal webpage or campaign page, or through a quick web search. In most cases, we focused on adding accounts that are in active use, meaning if an account has remained idle for months or years at a time it has not been entered into the database. The one exception to this is with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Due to our own biases from being a Pennsylvania based company, we have searched a little harder for the social media accounts in our region.
Here are a few general observations based on the data we have collected. On the federal level, maintaining an active social media presence is just about a given, but on the state level there are far fewer elected officials using social media. Only 46% of the state legislators in the Cicero API database have at least one social media account on the three major platforms; Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The above map (Image 1) shows which districts have a state legislator with at least one social media account versus the districts where there is no easily found social media presence.
While collecting the social media data, it felt as if those officials in the upper chambers used social media more than their lower chamber counterparts. Upon review of this hypotheses, there was only a 1% difference in favor of those in the upper chambers. Hardly enough of a difference to be very meaningful, but where there were some real differences between the chambers in how many social media accounts were being utilized. Forty-seven percent of all upper chamber representatives have at least one social media account. Looking a little deeper we found that 25% had only one account, 19% had two accounts, and 3% had accounts on all three social media platforms. When looking at the maps (Image 2, Image 3), it appears that the West Texas region is disproportionality large. This is due to the large areas a district can encompass in the state, and it helps to illustrate that district size is a factor in the visualization of this data.
With the lower chambers, 46% have at least one social media account. What we found is that legislators in lower chambers were more likely to have just one account, compared to legislators in upper chambers who were likely to have two accounts. In the lower chambers, 29% have one account, while 14% have two accounts, and 2% have all three.
Looking at each individual social media platform, Facebook is clearly the most widely used by state legislators. Forty-one percent of all state legislators have a Facebook account, and this map (Image 4) shows the most complete coverage of any single social media platform. When we layer the other social media platforms onto the map there are very few districts where there is no Facebook, but other platforms show through. While the overall popularity of Facebook is most likely the key factor into why the platform is the most used by politicians, another factor is the various ways a legislator can utilize Facebook. While most officials have created a Page for themselves for their supporters to “like”, a decent amount use their personal Facebook page for communication with their constituents. There is also a fair amount of those that have multiple Facebook pages. Some set up a page as they run for office and then create a new page once they are elected, which hardly seems like the most efficient means of using the platform, but I digress. On this map (Image 4) we also have the clearest view of the social media deserts that form in New Mexico, Wyoming, Nebraska, Louisiana, Indiana and the Dakotas. Elsewhere, the chances of finding at least one of your state representatives on Facebook are pretty good.
While Twitter could possibly be the easiest way to directly communicate with an elected official, there is a drastic drop in usage when compared to Facebook. Only 22% of state legislators have a twitter account, making Twitter’s usage about half of Facebook’s usage.
YouTube is clearly the least popular of the social media platforms we are exploring here. Only 5% of all state legislators have their own YouTube account. There are a variety of reasons for this beyond the overall popularity of the platform itself. For one, YouTube has the least amount of social interaction, and it is possible that the platform has little utility for officials closer to the local levels of government. Also, many state legislators will have a link to a YouTube account on their page that is actually a caucus’ YouTube account. While others hyperlink to pre-filled out YouTube searches giving the user many of the videos featuring the official without the official actually having their own account.
Overall, there appears to be a growing trend towards elected officials using social media to connect with voters and their constituents. There is also a greater acceptance among the legislative bodies to include social media accounts on a legislator’s official webpage making it more of a part of the cultural norm. As the Cicero Team is entering newly elected officials we are finding that most make use of at least one of these platforms, and many of them are utilizing multiple platforms as part of their campaign strategy. These accounts then carry over to their career as a representative. We are looking forward to tracking the growth of the use of social media over the coming election cycles.