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Congressional Staffers are On Social Media. What Does That Change?

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, July 26 2011

The Congressional Management Foundation released a study earlier today that found a majority of senior congressional staffers view at least some social media as important for taking the temperature of public opinion — but whether that changes anything is an open question.

The study finds that most members of Congress have "thoroughly integrated" new media tools, including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, into their daily business, based on a survey of congressional staff. Seventy-two percent of senior staffers surveyed — with the caveat that this includes "social media managers" who might have a particular view on the subject — believe social media allows their member of Congress to reach people they had previously not communicated with. Forty-two percent say social media is important for understanding constituents and just over a third say they routinely check YouTube. Writing for National Journal, Ethan Klapper slices the numbers a different way and leads with the news that staffers like Facebook more than Twitter: Survey results indicate 64 percent of staffers asked say Facebook is a somewhat or very important tool, while 42 percent say the same for Twitter.

But who will they hear from on those sites? Political scientist Justin Buchler — whom you may remember for his recent study about the "Internet infamy" of national figures like Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Rep. Alan Grayson — says that the discourse found on Twitter and Facebook is not appreciably different from what members of Congress are already hearing.

"The people who participate in social media particularly with respect to politics are not a random sample of the population," Buchler told me today. "The people who are going to pay attention to politics through social media are mostly political activists or at least people who are more politically active than the general population."

This includes campaign contributors, regular voters and volunteers, Buchler says — all of whom are more likely to be strongly partisan than the overall population — but it doesn't include many people from that "radical center" so many are hoping to find.

Recent research from the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that nearly half of American adults use some form of social networking service, it's true. The thing is, most of those people aren't the folks you usually find participating in online town halls or Twitter question-and-answer sessions — at least not so far.

It's hard to fault a congressional staffer for creating another outlet a constituent could use, when he or she crosses the valley of indifference into political awareness, to make known a position. But maybe it bears mentioning that the conversation that congressional staffers are listening to on social media is the same one they've been in for years.

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