Social Media and Politics: Twitter Use in the Second Congressional District of Virginia

By Julia Caplan
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2013, Vol. 4 No. 1 | pg. 1/3 |


With social media recently evolving as a platform for social, informational, and political exchanges, it comes as no surprise that in the last few years several politicians have integrated Twitter into their campaigns. The goal of this study was to gain insight into how Republican Congressman Scott Rigell and Democratic candidate Paul Hirschbiel—candidates in the 2nd Congressional District of Virginia—cultivated Twitter to attract voters in the 2012 election. A content analysis of the characteristics and tactical strategies of these Twitter posts revealed that the two congressional candidates primarily used Twitter to post information and tweet about their current activity. It was also found that Rigell posted more direct communication tweets— internal and external—than Hirschbiel, while Hirschbiel used personal messages to attract followers. The tactical strategies employed by Rigell and Hirschbiel were determined to be calculated methods by which the candidates hoped to motivate citizens, activate voters and differentiate themselves from their competitor.

I. Social Media and Politics:

With social media recently evolving as a platform for social, informational, and political exchange, it has become an influential tool used to effectively target numerous sectors in American society. It comes as no surprise that politicians are using these channels of mass communication and marketing to influence attitudes about themselves, set agendas, and even shape outcomes of campaigns (Gale Opposing Viewpoints, 2010). The recently evolved “micro-blogging” social media site, Twitter, is the ideal vehicle for this kind of selfpromotion, giving politicians the ability to inform mass numbers of people about their political activities almost instantaneously (Aharony, 2010). Twitter’s short posts, called “tweets,” enable users to share updates with friends, colleagues, and in a politician’s case, potential voters, giving users the ability to influence, inform, and engage each other in topics across the board.

In the last few years, several politicians have integrated Twitter into their campaigns; 577 politicians have opened Twitter accounts, three quarters of them in 2009 (Anonymous, 2010). With its recent popularity, Twitter’s relationship to politics has been the subject of numerous research studies (Aharony 2012; “International: Sweet to Tweet,” 2010; Budak, 2012; Smith & Brenner, 2012). Politicians are using social media as a new tool to increase interaction and exchange with the public. By using a social media device like Twitter, politicians can easily connect to their voters and vice versa (International: Sweet to Tweet, 2010). As social media emerges more and more as a means of daily chatter, conversations, sharing of information, and political debate, politicians are no longer only responsible for their outgoing tweets, but also for the responses and dialogue they create with potential voters (International: Sweet to Tweet, 2010).

Although social media is used across the country, this study will focus on a specific region in Virginia, a swing state in the 2012 general elections. In an article in The Washington Times, Luke Rosiak (2012) discussed the region in Virginia that is most saturated with political media of all forms, Hampton Roads. This 2nd Congressional District of Virginia, is one of the most influential areas in the current elections and is, therefore, one of the top-most regions saturated with political advertisements. “The reason for the intensity here is as much geographical as political: Hampton Roads is an amalgamation of demographics, sometimes starkly at odds with one another and all of which use the same airwaves” (Rosiak, 2012). Divided by high population of black communities that lean toward the Democrats, suburban and rural areas that lean toward the Republicans, and the largest naval base in the world with high investment in politics, Hampton Roads has become the target for much political propaganda.

With this high influence, the 2nd District of Virginia is receiving more political advertisements than any other major district in the other battleground states. Rosiak (2012) opened with the words, “Rep. E. Scott Rigell, a Republican, is in the toughest battle for re-election of any of the state’s 11 congressmen” (Rosiak, 2012). In an area of such high political influence, it is safe to assume that the candidates of this congressional election—Rigell and Hirschbiel—are cultivating a social media tool like Twitter as a part of their campaign strategy. This study conducted an analysis of the characteristics of high intensity use of the social networking site by these candidates in Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District election, 2012. This study strived to collect insight into how Republican Congressman Scott Rigell and Democratic candidate Paul Hirschbiel cultivated Twitter to attract voters in the 2012 election by analyzing the characteristics and tactical strategies employed in the candidates’ Twitter posts.

II. Literature Review

Theoretical Framework

The importance of influential, informational social exchange between politicians and users of social networking sites is implied by some of the tenants of Gerardine DeSanctis’ and Marshall Scott Poole’s (1994) Adaptive Structuration Theory (AST). A core premise of the AST is the idea that advanced information technologies, like social networking sites, enable multiparty participation and exchange in organizational activities through sophisticated information management (DeSanctis and Poole, 1994). More simply, it suggests that in order to nurture human interaction and communication, different society groups (systems) adapt information technologies (structure).

The AST proposes that this relationship between society and technology, or system and structure, is a two-sided exchange that leads society to a response or “movement” (Turner, 1986). Structures are both the medium and the outcome of social action, and systems are the means by which this information is circulated. This exchange is not only about the technology, but also about how these technologies are used. It is the users who set the agenda for the kind of information they receive and respond to.

In its basic form, the AST shows that the advancement of technological devices changes an organizational structure. Accordingly, the AST applies itself as a way to analyze the use and penetration of new media technologies in our society (DeSanctis and Poole, 1994).

The AST specifically applies to this study in that it is a study of the interplay between three distinct elements: social structures, human interactions, and advanced information technologies. By directly applying these assumptions to social groups in terms of social media outlets (such as Twitter), a few customizable observations can be made. First, social media sites are a means of transferring information from one societal group to another. Second, this informational exchange is not one-sided but circulates from structure to system and system to structure. And finally, as this social networking device advances and there is an increase in “interpenetration of structure,” it can impact an entire social organization and inspire change (DeSanctis and Poole, 1994; Turner, 1986).

Social Networking by Politicians

The social media site, Twitter, and its use by politicians have recently emerged as the subject of many studies. According to Smith and Brenner (2012), 15% of Internet users used Twitter in February 2012, which is a 3% increase from August 2011. And, of the 15% of users, 31% are between the ages of 18-24 years old. Twitter’s increasing popularity has made it a platform through which politicians influence, inform, and engage their publics while gathering feedback.

The most relevant study to this research is a content analysis of how three political leaders—the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Britain, David Cameron, and the President of the United States, Barack Obama-used Twitter between August and October, 2010. This study indicated that Obama tweeted more than the other leaders, then Netanyahu, followed by Cameron. It concluded, “all three leaders use Twitter for transparency and outreach” (Aharony, 2012).

As is the case with this study, Aharony (2012) studied how this politician-to-public exchange is created, used, and managed. The researcher did so by conducting an analysis in two phases: a statistical analysis and a content analysis. For both phases, Aharony (2012) examined all tweets that appeared during the set period, August through October, 2010. The research was guided by questions like (1) Do the leaders differ regarding their number of tweets, and (2) Does the content of the tweets from the three leaders differ? This study used the same methodology that Dr. Aharony (2012) used with some modifications: content analysis as the sole means of analyzing the tweets, and only the second research question addressed.

To perform the content analysis, two themes were analyzed—content and language—and each was assigned categories (Aharony, 2012). The researcher used a clustering approach, creating new categories whenever a main emerging topic did not match any existing categories. At the end, the coder generated a total of 10 new categories according to the tweets’ content. These categories, used as a model for this present study, include topics like general information, personal information, donation requests, events, general blessings, pictures, and so on. To analyze the language of the tweets, they were classified into two categories: formal and informal language, The latter included slang and abbreviations (Aharony, 2012).

Research conducted by Golbeck, Grimes, and Rogers (2010) about Twitter use by the U.S. Congress also shaped the data collection in this study. As Aharony (2012) did with her content analysis topics, the author separated “tweets by type,” such as inner communication, fundraising, requesting action, personal message, external communication, location/activity, and information. Aharony’s (2012) process and Golbeck et al.’s (2010) coding were replicated to shape the protocol and process of content analysis in this present study.

Twitter Use by Politicians

The structure of Twitter is designed to allow for a kind of dissemination of information, just as DeSanctis and Poole (1994) suggested in their research. With a 140-character maximum, Twitter is used to send out small bursts of information to large groups of people. The PEW Internet Project conducted in 2012 found that 66% of adults who are online use social networking sites. In this study, 75% of these adult users say their friends post at least some content related to politics, and 37% of users post political related material on these sites at least occasionally (Smith and Rainie, 2012). This real-time information network allows for politicians to connect to users almost instantaneously and gives them the ability to share information with people while gathering feedback.

Ultimately, Aharony (2012) suggested, “As the political leaders use Twitter, they use a channel that is not filtered by local or national media, thus they are able to convey their own unique agendas without being censored or filtered.” With a free means of expressing their own personal, independent opinions concerning various topics, political leaders connect to voters on a more personal level, bypassing the media. “There is a significant amount of direct communication taking place between Congresspeople and users who send them questions or comments” (Golbeck et al., 2010). A study done by Ingenito (2010) indicated that “today, tens of thousand of political discussions currently populated on [social networking sites] allow members from around the corner and across the globe to discuss and debate issues, trends, and topics they find most interesting and immediate (2).”

Research Questions

This research, propelled by the past studies reviewed, looked at the characteristics and tactical strategies of high intensity use of Twitter by incumbent Scott Rigell (R) and candidate Paul Hirschbiel (D) in Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District election, 2012. Based on this discussion, this paper posed the following questions:

  • What is the content of incumbent Scott Rigell’s and competitor Paul Hirschbiel’s social media usage of Twitter in the election?
  • How does each candidate distinctively cultivate Twitter to attract voters?


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