Communication Currents

Follow the Leader: How Twitter Influences the Relationship between Political Leaders and the Public

August 1, 2012
Political Communication

While it is only six years old, the microblog Twitter has become a major player in terms of political discourse. Every week, political leaders send thousands of short messages, called tweets, to millions of people who choose to follow them on Twitter. The effects of political tweets are remarkable. Surveys and in-depth interviews done with political Twitter users revealed that Twitter has changed how people engage politically. Followers regularly take actions that are requested in leaders’ tweets. In addition, political tweets are often more influential on followers’ political views than any other source, including friends and family. More information about these and other findings in the study can be found here.

With a 140-character limit, tweets might seem too small to impact campaigning and governing. Yet today Twitter is used by more than 175 million people worldwide, and more than 30 billion tweets have been sent. In the U.S., political Twitter users include the President, most governors, members of Congress, mayors of large metropolitan areas, and candidates for major offices. While there are many effects that Twitter has on politics and democracy, five in particular stand out.

 1. Political leaders can more easily spread their message. 

Political Twitter users don’t merely scan tweets, they act on them. Almost 90% of those in the survey said they look at least sometimes for information – such as websites, blogs, books, or articles – that is recommended and/or linked to in leaders’ tweets. More than 50% said they do so either often or always. The embedded links are one reason why tweets often communicate far more information than can be contained in 140 characters. Also, more than 60% reported taking actions, such as signing a petition or contributing to a candidate, at least sometimes. Leaders who tweet are thus able to reach and influence an increasingly large audience. Followers who retweet a leader’s tweet are especially helpful in spreading the word. When retweeting, followers are sending a leader’s tweet to all of their followers. Retweeting is a fairly regular activity. More than 60% said they retweet political leaders’ tweets at least sometimes.

Followers’ motives help explain why political tweets are acted upon as much as they are. Two of the top three motives for following political leaders on Twitter are “social” and “self-expression.” Both motives suggest that political Twitter users are not a passive audience but are instead eager to use political tweets for their own purposes. In many cases, the purpose is to use such tweets as background information when engaging in political conversations, either with the leaders who sent the tweets or with fellow politically involved individuals. In-depth interviews found that the tweets most likely to be acted upon are ones that include elements such as clarity, a call to action, personal relevance, professional usefulness, helpful links and hashtags, a political counterpoint, humor, and interactivity.

2. Political tweets heavily influence followers’ political views. 

Certain demographic groups – such as women, those older than 40, and those making $100,000 or less – have their political beliefs influenced more by tweets from leaders they usually agree with than by anyone else in their social circle, including friends, family, and co-workers. Among all survey respondents, such tweets had the same score as family members for influence on respondents’ political views. Only friends scored higher, but just barely. The results are surprising given the non-existent nature of followers’ relationships with political leaders.

3. Twitter promotes and inhibits political polarization. 

In terms of inhibiting polarization, many political Twitter users are using the microblog to expose themselves to diverse views. More than 40% follow leaders they usually do not agree with politically, and those who follow leaders they disagree with are following many of them. However, the most ideological followers are the ones most likely to avoid following leaders with differing political beliefs. This potentially creates an atmosphere in which those who arguably need a political counterpoint the most are the least likely to received it on Twitter.

Hashtags offer a way to fight political polarization. A hashtag is a word or abbreviation, designated in a tweet by the “#” sign, that can be searched on Twitter’s website. The tweets of anyone who includes that hashtag are grouped together on Twitter. Hashtags have political value because political leaders, or anyone else, of varying ideologies can spark dialog on an issue by giving the issue a hashtag in their tweets. Twitter users, regardless of who they follow, can search the hashtag, see what has been said about the issue by leaders of many parties, and also contribute to the conversation.

4. Twitter is the ultimate soapbox, encouraging activism and political discourse. 

Political Twitter users want to be more than mere receivers of information. They have a genuine desire to engage politically. As one of the in-depth interview participants put it, the best thing about Twitter is that “you don’t have to follow someone to contact them and tell them how you feel. You can tweet it to the world, hashtag it, and somebody in the social media department in their office/party will read it.” Because many political Twitter users have a desire to engage in two-way communication with leaders, there are several practical implications for how office holders and candidates can use Twitter more effectively.  Political leaders can benefit by monitoring who is replying to them (called @reply) and mentioning them (called @mention) to see what is being asked of them and said about them. A leader who responds quickly to @replies and @mentions will stand out against all the leaders who don’t, and that will lead to positive word-of-mouth that can increase the leader’s influence and follower count. Political leaders could also benefit by asking followers for their advice. This engagement would make those leaders seem more valuable to followers and more compatible with their political needs.

5. Tweeting teaches political leaders brevity. 

The final effect is perhaps the most hopeful. Because tweets are limited to just 140-characters, politicians are forced to get to the point. And that is a refreshing change. As writing teacher William Zinsser once noted: “The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.” Twitter imposes that kind of brevity.

About the author (s)

John H. Parmelee

University of North Florida

Associate Professor