Over the last five years, the social media platform Twitter has become a standard part of the communications package of U.S. senators. An analysis of Twitter activity by senators in the first four days of the 115th Congress (Tuesday January 3 to Thursday January 6) reveals a large amount of communication with a great deal of variety between members of the Senate. During this period, the 100 members of the Senate posted out 1,792 Twitter posts (“Tweets”). Many of these posts were accomplished impersonally (as with Senators’ speeches, statements and letters) through work delegated to hired communications staff.
The distribution of these Tweets is uneven. The office of New York Senator Charles Schumer posted the largest number of Tweets during the four days at 79, with Texas Senator John Cornyn not far behind at 69 Tweets. These two most voluminous Twitter users directed their posts in different ways: three out of five of Sen. Cornyn’s Tweets mentioned or replied to another Twitter user, while Sen. Schumer broadcasted his Tweets slightly more than half the time without any reference to any other Twitter user. While both senators had much to say, Sen. Schumer acted as more of a broadcaster and Sen. Cornyn acted as more of a communicator. The least communicative Senator on Twitter was Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who only posted one Tweet during the first four days of the 115th Congress:
For a member of the U.S. Senate, Sen. Cochran’s single Tweet went relatively unnoticed, with only 5 retweets, 24 likes, and 14 replies. Vice President-Elect Mike Pence did not respond to Sen. Cochran’s outreach.
Those senators who do not communicate tend not to be the recipient of communication. Sen. Cochran, for instance, was not mentioned by any other senator during the new Senate’s first week. Sens. Schumer and Cornyn, on the other hand, received multiple mentions from other senators during the period. The most mentioned senator during the first four days of the 115th Congress was Catherine Cortez Masto, the new Senator for Nevada. Most of these mentions by other senators were messages of welcome, although some noted her work, as in this retweeting message from Sen. Schumer regarding the new Senate’s plans to dismantle the existing health care structure:
Patterns of communication between members of the Senate via Twitter tended to be partisan, as the following social network graph of mentions and replies indicates. This network graph uses a “spring embedded” visualization technique so that ties (indicated via curved lines) draw connected nodes closer to one another:
Most Democratic senators’ accounts tend to cluster close to one another (although Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado is the network’s only “isolate,” not mentioning or referring to any other Twitter account during the period), and most Republican senators’ accounts also tend to cluster close to one another as well. Interestingly, the two Independents of the Senate, Senators Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, are clustered closely to Democrats’ accounts, Sen. Sanders most markedly so. Sen. King clusters with Democrats in this period because he mentions the same non-Senate Twitter account that they do (as indicated in gray).
There are exceptions to strict partisanship. Many members of the Senate refer to the same non-Senate accounts across party lines, as in the case of Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, represented as the blue dot in the upper left of the network graph. While Sen. Heitkamp does not directly converse on Twitter with Republican senators, neither does she converse with her Democratic colleagues. Because Sen. Heitkamp mentions an account that is also mentioned by Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, she is clustered with Republicans. Senator Tim Scott (represented as the red dot toward the bottom of the network graph) follows the same pattern, not directly mentioning Democratic senators’ accounts but mentioning a number of the same non-senate accounts that they do. Senator Joe Manchin takes this pattern of cross-partisanship through indirect contact to its fullest extent, referring to the Twitter accounts of Vice President Mike Pence as well as the news outlets Fox News and the news shows Fox & Friends and Morning Joe that are popular targets of communication for a number of Republican senators. In the network of Twitter communication, this places Sen. Manchin squarely in the midst of the Republican upper-half of the Senatorial network.
As the large number of gray-shaded accounts in the network indicate, members of the Senate spend considerable energy communicating to accounts outside the Senate. Some 471 accounts outside the Senate were targets of communication during the first 4 days of the 115th Congress. The most common target of communication during these days was President-Elect Donald Trump, who was mentioned in 17 senators’ Tweets. The next most common target was the account of Planned Parenthood, whose federal funding for poor women’s pap smears and contraception is under threat from Senate budget cutters. Rounding out the top ten most-referred to Twitter accounts by senators are four Democratic senators, the collective account of Senate Democrats, one Trump cabinet pick (Governor Rick Perry of Texas), and two national news outlets.
Patterns of reference to particular media outlets are highlighted in the network graph below, which is identical to the graph above but which features the accounts of national news outlets with graphic icons. The three most commonly referred-to media outlets during the period were MSNBC (10 references), Fox News (8 references), and C-SPAN (7 references). The location of some of these news outlets is unsurprising. Right-leaning Fox News, Politico, and The Hill are referred to most commonly by by Republicans, and left-leaning NPR is referred to exclusively by Democratic senators. However, the centrist CNN is surprisingly only referred to by Republican senators, and the right-leaning Washington Times is referred by by both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate.
Data collection and visualization for this post was carried out with NodeXL software.