“Social media is the ultimate equalizer. It gives a voice and a platform to anyone willing to engage.” That statement by Internet entrepreneur Amy Jo Martin has profound implications in a democracy. Prior to the introduction of the Internet, the process of engaging elected officials was viewed as cumbersome and intimidating, perhaps only available to wealthy campaign donors. New research by the Congressional Management Foundation suggests that social media, “the ultimate equalizer,” perhaps has the potential to influence that dynamic even more.
The CMF conducted a survey of congressional staff (communications directors and legislative directors) and found that, like other parts of our society, Congress is using social media in surprising ways. As Roll Call reported this month (“Study Finds Congress Is Paying More Attention to Social Media,” Oct. 14), a remarkably few number of constituents can gain access to a member of Congress using social media — 80 percent of staffers said fewer than 30 comments were enough for the office to “pay attention.”
This is clearly a shift in congressional opinion from even just five years ago. A common comment from staff in the 2010 survey went something like this: “You run the risk of having messages taken out of context, and the crowd that frequents social media sites may be baiting us for a controversy.” Yet in the 2014, a more prevalent sentiment sounded like this: “[We can] highlight a personality that doesn’t come through in press releases or on the House floor.” (Warning to staff: Some members convey a bit too much “personality.” Twitter password in member’s control + iPhone + too little sleep = weeks of bad press.)
Staff also reported there were some unique aspects of social media making it attractive. “It allows us to engage at a level and pace that is meaningful to decision making,” said one staffer. Staff seem to value the authenticity of social media allowing them to engage with constituents on a “level” greater than other media (such as grassroots email campaigns). And there’s no denying the “pace” of Facebook and Twitter is unlike any other communications vehicle. I once watched a communications director follow her boss’s C-SPAN interview on Twitter. She was getting line by line feedback on her boss’s comments — as they occurred.
Yet the comments from staff in the survey were not all positive. There continues to be thread of discontent among staff, forced to wade through what sometimes seems like a sea of vindictive and irrational disparagements to find the genuine constituent or thoughtful comment. “Because of the high number of Internet users who maintain some level of anonymity on social media, the level of dialogue can devolve and interactions can seem counterproductive at times,” said one staffer.
On the more positive note, readers outside the Beltway might be surprised how much Congress seems to care about constituents’ opinions. Regrettably, negative (and inaccurate) portrayals of Congress permeate all forms of media. A 2015 national public survey asked Americans whether they agreed with this statement: “My representative in Congress cares what I think.” Only 31 percent of respondents agreed. Yet in the CMF surveys of congressional staff, only 3 percent said “We don’t review comments” on their social media platforms — suggesting a whopping 97 percent do review comments. Congress is listening and does care what constituents think. Countless CMF surveys and research projects with members of Congress and staff over more than three decades confirm this surprising truth. (For an education on how Congress actually works, the CMF recommends readers skip the third season of “House of Cards” and rewatch a few segments of “Schoolhouse Rock.”)
While the primary purpose of the study was provide some practical insight into how congressional offices and citizens can use social media to build stronger relationships, a welcome secondary outcome might be to chip a few bricks from the wall of cynicism that separates people from politicians. To quote Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” As this research shows, “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” can influence public policy. While we’re still at the dawn of the marriage between social media and Congress, it’s rather exciting to contemplate the potential impact this partnership could have on American democracy.
Bradford Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, and a former congressional staffer.