Social Media Benefits Outweigh Risks for Congress

Abigail White /

Since the launch of Facebook in 2004, social media use has skyrocketed. Facebook has more than 750 million active users, and sites like Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn and Flickr are quickly following Facebook and growing into cultural phenomenons. It is hard to imagine a day without sending a few tweets or writing on someone’s wall. Social media has become a crucial part of how we interact with our friends, community and even run our cities. Governments are starting to take serious notice and incorporate social media into their own day-to-day actions.

With nearly 80% of Americans engaging in regular Internet use, the buzz social media generates is unparalleled to any other news source. Before President Obama announced Osama Bin Laden’s death, word quickly spread over Twitter. Obama has social media to thank for the success of his 2008 election. However, social media can be just as much of a deal-breaker. Take the recent “Weinergate” frenzy that resulted in the downfall of Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY).

Social media, and particularly Twitter and Facebook, have become a type of soapbox in America, on which many politicians are able to speak directly to their constituents. A new study released this week shows that in response to social changes, a clear majority of members of Congress have fully integrated social media platforms into their communications efforts.

The Congressional Management Foundation’s findings in #SocialCongress: Perceptions and Use of Social Media on Capitol Hill are based on a survey of 260 congressional staff members conducted in late 2010. The report’s findings indicate that social media use has become a vital component of political communications. It looks at how congressional offices interact with their constituents over social media.

Congressional offices are increasingly utilizing nontraditional forms of communication to gauge public opinion, communicate with constituents, and reach new people — especially right now in the midst of the debt-limit debate.

“Social media tools have been adopted more rapidly than previous technologies,” said Bradford Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation. “These technologies are starting to change how Congress communicates with their constituents and is allowing members to reach citizens who otherwise might not engage in the democratic dialogue,” he said.

The study shows that a strong majority of staffers (72%) believe that social media allow their member to reach people they had previously not communicated with. Additionally, younger colleagues see more value in social media than their older counterparts and tend to believe that they can control the message over social media.

John Mark Reynolds, director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, spoke at a recent Heritage event about the risks and benefits of new media for sustaining America’s experiment in self-government. “Cultural habits and attitudes of people factor civil society. They’re crucial in sustaining political and economic freedom,” Reynolds asserted.

He continued to emphasize the tensions social media are going to make prominent again, such as love vs. justice and community vs. individual. He warned, however, to not let the prospect of change and increased tension to deter people from engaging in social media.

The Congressional Management Foundation report (which Reynolds is not affiliated with) indicates the majority of the staffers (55%) feel social media offers their offices more benefits than risks, reaffirming Reynolds’ assumptions. People are willing to take the risks for tremendous benefits. Likewise, congressional offices that embrace technology are more likely to see social media outreach as a benefit to their offices.

The immediacy of online communication as made the expansion and prominence of social media is inevitable. Perhaps Facebook’s popularity among members of Congress is because it is so popular in their districts. As new media emerge, members of Congress will likely continue to embrace technology in order to connect with their constituents.