Photo Credit: NY Magazine

Ask a Member of Congress who influences him or her and you’ll probably hear some variation of “my constituents.” Recently, Dan Amira and New York Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer blog explored the subject of influence, partnering with the folks at Twiangulate to analyze who Members of Congress followed on Twitter. While the facts are in some ways unsurprising – e.g., “Republicans … following @RedState and @Drudge_report more than they’re following @AP or @nytimes,”and “Democrats … keeping close tabs on multiple NPR accounts…” – a closer look at the personality and aspirations of each member, as well as the disparate dynamics of each congressional district, is critical for a better understanding of why a Member of Congress might follow another Twitter user. 

When examining the Twitter activity of a Member of Congress, including which users each Member follows, consider the obvious utility of the tool, but then also consider these questions:                                 

What political identity is the Member of Congress trying to cultivate? Is the Member trying to establish him- or herself as a proven defender of the environment? A thorn in the Administration’s backside? A maverick? A political firebrand? Someone who stays above the fray? 

What job(s) does the Member ultimately want? Is the Member gunning to be Chair of the House Energy & Commerce Committee? Is he or she trying to lay the groundwork back home for a statewide run? Is the Member trying to stave off a primary challenge to keep his or her current position? Is the Member looking to his or her future on K Street? 

What is the Member’s personality? Was he or she an enthusiastic early-adopter of Twitter? A prolific tweeter cultivating a national followership? A technophobe who has handed the account off entirely to staff?        

Is the Member trying to elevate an individual Twitter user? Being followed by a Member of Congress could elevate the profile of a given user and his or her ideas. This is particularly true when followed at the expense of a rival reporter, news outlet, think tank, etc. Consider what the Member might have to gain from amplifying the voice of another user.

Consider the case of Republican House offices following popular Fox News host Sean Hannity. One Member might follow @seanhannity because he supports Sean Hannity’s ideology and wants to provide a public affirmation of Hannity’s views; another might follow @seanhannity simply because her base expects her to follow @seanhannity and not doing so would be noteworthy; the staff running a third Member’s account might follow @seanhannity because they know that Hannity and Fox are popular in-district and that Hannity’s next tweet could spur ten calls to the D.C. office.

Whether the purpose is preemption (@seanhannity, @maddow), messaging counsel (@housedemocrats, @GOPConference), opposition research, or simply staying in the know (@mikeallen), the reasons to follow a given Twitter user can be as varied as the Members themselves. 

Although much political analysis necessarily involves grouping – Republican or Democrat; hawk or dove; pro-life or pro-choice, etc. – an examination that moves beyond these broad, binary distinctions could reveal more about a Member’s objective in using Twitter as a communications tool.

--Gordon