How (Not) to Talk on Twitter: Effects of Politicians' Tweets on Perceptions of the Twitter Environment

Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking is currently giving free access to a number of high impact articles until February 11th. Figured this article would be of interest to a number of people here in the lead up to any new federal campaign.

Lyons, Benjamin A. and Veenstra, Aaron S… How (Not) to Talk on Twitter: Effects of Politicians’ Tweets on Perceptions of the Twitter Environment. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. January 2016, 19(1): 8-15. doi:10.1089/cyber.2015.0319.

Politicians’ Twitter habits can vary considerably. Those who choose to use may do so as part of a broad discussion community or as a one-to-many broadcaster. Because each user sees a different mix of tweets, a politician seen by one user as interacting with the public may be seen by another as engaging in one-way communication, potentially prompting different evaluations of the politician, the ongoing discussion, or even Twitter itself. This study uses an experiment to test the effects of different engagement and framing styles in politician tweets on evaluations of the politician, other discussants, and Twitter itself. Findings suggest that politicians who use Twitter to broadcast, rather than engage with other users, not only receive worse evaluations themselves but that the negative evaluation carries over to other users discussing the same topics, as well as to evaluations of the utility of Twitter as an information source. This effect is attributed to intramedium interaction, in which reactions to one aspect of a multimedia object carry over to other aspects of the same object.

Twitter has become a prominent channel for elected officials to communicate with the press and the public. It is used disproportionately for news and political information compared with most social network services, holding the potential to reach those most likely to vote and share information with others. Politicians (or their campaigns) may see Twitter as combining benefits of broadcast media and face-to-face communication. Through its unique mix of affordances, politicians can engage an unconstrained audience of voters in an instantaneous, direct, and personal way. But while Twitter allows for discussion, it can easily be used as a one-way broadcast platform.

While elected officials’ affinity for Twitter is well known, benefits to politicians at a more granular level are less apparent. How do different Twitter communication styles affect evaluations and vote considerations? Few studies have investigated the psychological effects of Twitter-based communication involving elected officials. Moreover, those studies have examined behavior while largely ignoring content. In this study, we reexamine politician engagement and framing along with respondent partisanship. Through the lens of a timely and contentious policy issue, we examine effects on evaluations of the politician and attendant effects on evaluations of other discussants and of Twitter as a platform for political communication.