Are the reasons for using Twitter different across party lines?

TwitterThis post is meant to summarize a recent and well-publicized study of ours for those in the Gov 2.0 community who are interested in the key results, but do not have the time to read the paper.

It has been well documented that Republicans have a greater affinity to Twitter; despite the leading Twitter user being President Barack Obama, a Democrat. Our study asks: are the reasons for using Twitter different across party lines?

Data from the Twitter adoption decisions of the 111th House of Representatives suggests “yes.” Based on an empirical method that is used to back out latent preferences associated with adopting Twitter, the analysis yields the following:

1. Republicans who have sponsored a large number of bills are the most likely to adopt Twitter, while Democrats who have the strongest electoral support (from 2008’s election) are the most likely. But so what?

2. Well, the number of bills and the 2008 electoral support proxy for the perceived benefits associated with outreach and transparency, respectively.

a. Outreach operates as a means to diffuse information that works to a politician’s advantage, with the ultimate goal of (perhaps) getting bills passed. This advantage is especially useful if by using Twitter, a politician can generate public support for contentious policies, which in turn, yields support from ideological rivals they interact with – who also use Twitter. Our data seems to support this story, as Republicans who have sponsored a large number of bills and belong to committees with a lot of fellow Democrat Twitter adopters are the most likely to adopt.

b. Transparency is the conscience act of “being honest.” Politicians who have strong constituent support would conceivably have the most to lose by failing to maintain the public’s trust. However, politicians who have been in office for a number of years have most likely developed some level of trust, and are therefore less inclined to make conscience displays of transparency, like adopting Twitter. Our data seems to support this story, as Democrats who have the strongest electoral support and the least number of years in office are the most likely to adopt Twitter.

Outreach and transparency are both valuable to a healthy democracy, and to some extent, it is re-assuring that Twitter use is motivated by both reasons. An interesting counter-factual situation would be if the Republicans were the majority party. We may therefore ask in that situation: Is the desire to reach out to (opposing) voters strongest for “losing” parties? Our study certainly hints that Republicans are not only motivated to use Twitter as a means to reach out to their own followers, but also to Democrats, as they are more likely to use Twitter in cases where their district was overwhelmingly in favor President Barack Obama.

All-in-all, it would seem like Twitter is good for the whole Gov 2.0 idea. If Republicans are using Twitter as a means for outreach, then more bills may be passed (note: this has yet to be tested empirically, and still remains an open question for researchers). If Democrats are using Twitter as a means for transparency, then the public benefits from the stronger sense of accountability. Sounds like a more productive government to us.

About Nathan Yang

Nathan Yang (individual.utoronto.ca/nene) is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Toronto's Department of Economics, and is interested in all things empirical. Any questions, comments or suggestions can be directed to nathan.yang@utoronto.ca.

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