The Christian Science Monitor may have reached the right conclusion using the wrong data… but does it matter?

By Henri Makembe on 03.10.10

I‚Äôm a few days late on this but a few day ago,¬†The Christian Science Monitor¬†(CSM) recently ran a story titled‚ÄúSocial media domination: Republicans rule Twitter.‚Ä̬†Relying on a¬†recent study¬†by¬†congressional research service¬†(CRS),¬†Peter Grier, the author, reaches the conclusion republicans members of congress and activists are using Twitter more effectively than their Democratic counter-part. While I there is some truth to his conclusion, the way Mr. Grier reaches his conclusion is at best lazy and at worst misleading to this audience. Let‚Äôs take a closer look at the report, Mr. Grier‚Äôs article, and where the truth may lie.

The high school CRS report.

Published by Matthew Glassman, Colleen Shogan, and Jacob Straus, the report sought to answer the following questions related to members’ use of twitter:

  1. What proportion of Members are using Twitter?
  2. How often and when are Members using Twitter?
  3. How widely are Member tweets being followed?
  4. What are Members tweeting about?

To conduct the study, the authors relied to TweetCongress to identify members of congress that were already registered on Twitter. After identifying those already using twitter, the authors ‚Äútracked‚ÄĚ each of the registered users for 61 days, from August 1st, 2009 to September 1st, 2009. What ensued is a very elementary analysis of the activity of members of congress on Twitter. After 61 days, the analysis revealed that the median representative had 1,297 followers. Further breakdown showed that the median Republican representative had 1,563 followers, compared with 879 for the median Democratic representative. In the Senate, The median Republican Senator had 3,216 followers, compared with 3,747 for the median Senate Democrat. The authors concluded:

The use of Twitter by Members of Congress is an evolving phenomenon. As Members continue to embrace new technologies, their use of Twitter and other forms of social media may increase. These mediums allow Members to communicate directly with constituents (and others) in a potentially interactive way that is not possible through mail or e-mail. For Members and their staff, the ability to collect and transmit real time information from constituents could be influential for policy or voting decisions.

The report provided answers the questions that the authors outlined and there is nothing inherently wrong with the methodology used to reach those answers. However, the report lacks depth. Existing web applications such as TweetStats, Twinfluence and TwitterAnalyzer provide more in-depth information than the report. More than depth, the report lacks context. Some may remember that the summer 2009 was not especially kind to democrat official in town hall meetings and the GOP picked up steam and encourage its member to vent online. Under those circumstances, one may understand why elected democrats may have shied away from the medium.

Dodgy reporting.

The previously mentioned CSM article by Mr. Grier, used the report to make the point that Republicans ‚Äúrule‚ÄĚ the Twitterverse. With no additional reporting or context, Mr. ip address information Grier simply echoes the ‚Äúfindings‚ÄĚ of the CRS report in his piece and add his own spin. He writes:

It’s the House that’s the Twitter GOP hotbed. Fully half of the Capitol Hill Twitterverse is composed of House Republicans. Obviously they’ve got some organized Twitter strategy going on in the GOP caucus.
Is it only Decoder that finds this counterintuitive? It‚Äôs Democrats who are the party of young people (who text a lot), and Change, with a capital ‚ÄúC,‚ÄĚ and MoveOn, and Web-based fundraising, and so forth.

Mr. Grier’s reporting, in this case, is at best lazy and at worse intentionally misleading. With the title of his piece and throughout the content, he pushes the readers to believe that the report, explicitly or implicitly, concluded that Republican member of congress are more organized on Twitter than their Democratic counter parts. Moreover, he relies on the report to draw the conclusion that Democrats activists are not effectively using twitter at the grassroots level. The report did not address any question that would lead to either of these conclusions. The CRS report simply looked at activity of members of the over a period of 61 days. Any conclusion outside that requires additional sources, which Mr. Grier fails to provide.

Where the truth lies.

While I disagree with use of the CSR report by Mr. Grier to reach his conclusions, there is some truth to what he said. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that republican member of the house or activists are well organized on Twitter but I’d happily concede the point that they are certainly louder and have created a very effective echo chamber. A quick search of #tcot (top conservative on twitter) vs #topprog or #p2, will reveal that there are most posts more often on the #tcot than there are on #topprog or #p2.

Additionally, there are many more high profile republicans, both in and out of congress, on twitter putting their message on twitter and asking their supporters to take action. Whether they are saying absolute non-sense, making policy points, or sharing small bits of their personal lives, they provide an authentic voice to republicans on Twitter. On the left, activists have focused on building their institutions’ base. In theory this is great because an institution is greater than any single individual but in practice it reduces the number of people willing to take action on behalf of that institution at risk of feeling like a pawn in a chess game.

Lastly, there are few good republicans new media strategists‚Äď each with a huge following. These strategists are politically savvy and are usually on the same page when it comes the issues and messaging. When they decide to push a candidate, an issue or a talking point, it catches fires in the #tcot Twitter community. One only looks at how many times they are re-tweeted on any given day. On the left, there tend to be silos across issues. Organizations with a specific cause or issue will not publicly echo another organization‚Äôs tweet unless it‚Äôs related to their primary issue.

What really matters.

The discussion about which party is more effective online is a moot one. As any new good new media strategist will tell you, the holy grail of online participation is to translate it into offline action. Any organization or politicians would rather have 200 followers/supporters who are going to take action online and offline than 1000 followers who are going to tweet and do nothing else.