Politicians on Social Media: Perceptions of Risk and Reward

Have you ever read a politician’s social media post and thought to yourself, “What on earth was he (or she) thinking?” In a recent study published online in the journal Policy & Internet, we at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, examined the social media usage (in this case, Twitter) of 97 United States senators and found that politicians with a particular profile tended to engage their target audience via Twitter.

Social media represent a double-edged sword for politicians. These platforms offer the opportunity to avoid “gatekeepers,” who are perceived as manipulating and distorting the content of a politician’s message.

At the same time, however, the online environment exposes the “messager” to unintended and perhaps unmanageable consequences, as a result of errors in the message or the engagement of hostile opposition, rather than the desired positive interaction with supporters.

Traditional media offer the reverse. Political figures relinquish the uni-directional control of their message content to gatekeepers, but avoid the possibility of immediate negative response.

Any rational politician would weigh the cost–benefit of each channel to arrive at a media strategy. Are limited resources devoted more to traditional media or to social? The research is somewhat conflicting. For example, one line of inquiry supports the notion that politicians who lack name recognition and resources tend to use social media more extensively. Others have found that well-financed incumbents have readily adopted platforms like Facebook to post polished video messaging.

Perhaps the best example would be the 2016 presidential campaign of the United States. Donald Trump relied heavily on social media, rather than the conventional television advertisement, for public communication. In fact, it is believed that even a single Donald Trump tweet would trump his entire party’s ideology on Twitter. Three years on, Twitter is still Donald Trump’s preferred mode of communication with the public.

In our study, we focused on the question of which candidates perceive the benefits of social media to outweigh the risks. The literature suggests that a plausible profile of social media users would be members of the opposition (non-governing, minority party); backbenchers (or underdogs, who lack seniority or recognition within their own parties); and extremists, who occupy both ends of the political spectrum.

To test this hypothesis, we established a measure of social media usage, the relative use of social and traditional media as indicated by the number of posts on Twitter (the most extensively used social platform) as opposed to the number of official news releases offered to the traditional media for each politician. The variables to be tested were opposition party status, underdog status (as indicated by how close an individual was to party leadership positions), and ideological extremism (measured according to the DW-NOMINATE score for each senator).

Data were derived for 97 senators over the 2009-2011 period, which was chosen because the time window when a researcher would most clearly observe the patterns of their use is in the early stages of the new technology’s introduction.

Regression analysis found support for the opposition-party and ideological variables. We refined the analysis by removing the opposition party variable, because the “backbencher” was strictly a “within-party” measure. Now, the underdog, or backbencher, variable also showed strong correlation, thereby validating the three hypotheses.

This finding also corroborates our previous suggestion that the likes of Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders might perceive social media to be more beneficial than might other politicians with conservative or moderate ideologies.

In conclusion, these results suggest that social media activity will likely increase among minority party members, underdogs, and extremists. As they continue to weigh the pros and cons of social versus traditional media, they will continue to see the relative risks and rewards, respectively, of each. Our study provides a framework for understanding social media usage patterns of politicians.


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Title of original article: Why Do Politicians Tweet? Extremists, Underdogs, and Opposing Parties as Political Tweeters

DOI: 10.1002/poi3.201

Journal: Policy & Internet

  • Rational politicians must measure the risk and rewards of using social media for messsaging. What works and what hurts?