By Mary Lieb
When President Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012, one of the campaign’s hallmarks revolved around digital databases that helped streamline volunteers, donors and supporters. In doing so, the Obama campaign expanded its network across various social media platforms – mobilizing more supporters to register voters, spread the campaign’s message and aid fundraising efforts; all of which played a pivotal role in Obama’s re-election.
While these online communities weren’t necessarily new, 2012 became a tipping point for digital platforms as more and more people logged on. Social networks like Twitter, with 151 million monthly active users in 2012 (nearly half of its current following), became a place where everyone from the Pope to Alex Ovechkin and Lady Gaga could exist together. In the most idealistic version, these online platforms have created an opportunity for likeminded people to communicate and build new communities regardless of geographic proximity to other users.
A mere four years after the Obama team launched the @POTUS Twitter account, nearly every political figure has an online presence. And no political figure is as closely monitored on social media than our current president, @realDonaldTrump. A mind-blowing 76 percent of Americans say they see, hear or read about President Trump’s tweets. President Trump’s frequent tweets to relay breaking news and share unfiltered opinions have defined not only his term as president but the prominence of political social media.
Trump isn’t the only elected official who has found his voice on social media. Digital channels combined (Twitter, Facebook and Instagram) account for 128,140 of all 144,810 documents published so far by the members of the 116th Congress, meaning roughly 90 percent of congressional statements are published on these digital platforms. Twitter is clearly the most popular among the 116th Congress, with nearly 90,000 total tweets by members of Congress in the first two months of the session.
Members of Congress are using social media to share everything from workouts and skin care tips to issues and policy agendas (you’ve likely seen 2020 candidate ads pop up in your social feed). Some members like Rep. Ben Sasse (R-NE) have even gone so far as to maintain two accounts: one official account for congressional business and one personal account to showcase their relatable, often more likable side to voters. It’s exciting and often comical to watch lawmakers manage their accounts, engage with events like March Madness and use the communication short code. Users can sense authenticity, and lawmakers who post authentically can be rewarded even when they don’t necessarily follow the “rules” – cue Sen. Angus King’s (I-ME) lengthy but wholesome posts on Instagram.
To clarify, social media has not replaced all other forms of communication by policymakers. While almost all members participate at some level, Democrats tend to tweet more often and have larger followings than their Republican colleagues – perhaps the result of a younger, more diverse Democratic party. Traditional platforms like press releases, floor statements, newsletters to constituents and dear colleague letters still play a significant role in Congress’ dissemination of information. While tweets can be deleted and Facebook or Instagram posts can be edited, you can be confident that if a press release is on a member’s website, it’s an official, unwavering statement. It is also noteworthy that while Democrats publish more documents on social media than Republicans, Republican members publish more press releases and newsletters than their Democratic counterparts.
More than any other class, the 116th Congress has amplified the digital communication strategy. When compared to the 115th Congress, the newest congressional members posted nearly 14,000 more times in their first 60 days in office. Despite this increase, the division between traditional and digital platforms has remained similar. Ninety percent of the 116th Congress’ posts were on social networks, compared to 85 percent of the previous session’s posts. These numbers illustrate a heightened reliance on digital communications especially through Twitter which accounts for more than 60 percent of all congressional posts.
As the 116th session of Congress continues, we can expect these trends to progress, especially as members increasingly deliver news via Twitter. In fact, some members such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) have opted-out of formal press releases in favor of social media. Congressional leadership has also placed value on a social media presence: less than ten days into the current session, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez hosted a Twitter seminar to teach other new members how to successfully wield their influence online. You can be sure that with over 3.63 million followers, if Rep. Ocasio-Cortez tweets about an issue affecting your organization, staffers and members are going to pay attention.
For years, television and traditional media platforms were considered the bully pulpit—a place where all news would stem from. Digital media hasn’t replaced traditional platforms, but it has revamped and expanded the reach of news. To stay informed and relevant in Washington, organizations must continue to embrace shoe-leather lobbying, but also use innovative digital analytics tools to understand the political environment and develop a social media strategy that supports all of its traditional efforts. Cogent has the digital know-how to complement and amplify government relations and advocacy goals. While one tweet may not be enough to change the direction of policy, the Cogent team is helping clients break though the noise by developing customized social strategies informed by sound analytics that can start a conversation, influence legislation and position executives as thought leaders.
Mary Lieb draws on social media management experience gained while working in the White House press office to develop social strategies and content and conduct digital analytics research on behalf of Cogent clients.