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Can social media change the way lawmakers connect with constituents?

A report released on Wednesday found that as few as 30 comments on a legislator's social media post could prompt action from many members of Congress and their staff. The speed and immediacy of social media may be changing the way lawmakers interact with citizens in their districts, researchers say.

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Traditionally, getting to see a member of Congress can be a daunting task, filled with negotiations with staffers, scheduling conflicts, and even form letters that seem to respond only vaguely to citizens’ concerns.

But on social media, a relatively small number of comments can grab the attention of lawmakers and their staff, a new report released on Wednesday found.

Less than 30 comments on a lawmaker’s own post on sites like Facebook and Twitter would prompt congressional staff to pay attention, 80 percent of staffers in a survey by the non-profit Congressional Management Foundation said.

The key ingredient in prompting a response? Time. While 54 percent of the staffers said they would review comment posted 6 hours ago, only 23 percent said they would review a comment older than a week.

“I think the speed with which there’s exchange between constituents [and legislators] is just dramatically different, both how quickly they get it and quickly they may or may not respond,” says Jason Gainous, a political science professor at the University of Louisville who has studied social media’s influence on politics.

Less than 10 comments would prompt action from 35 percent of the 116 House and Senate staff surveyed, buoyed by lawmakers’ growing use of social media. Twenty-five percent of those surveyed said it didn’t matter how old the comments were, they would still review them, though it’s unclear what action would result.

The report’s authors pointed to the power of social media to connect lawmakers more directly with their constituents.

"The authenticity of a tweet or Facebook post, whether by a citizen or lawmaker, has the inescapable power to change minds," said Bradford Fitch, the non-profit foundation’s president, who co-authored the report, in a statement. The report “opens a window into the perceptions and motivations of how social media influences public policy decisions on Capitol Hill,” he added.

But Professor Gainous says the report raises questions about whether there is truly two-way communication between legislators and constituents, or if constituents are simply responding to what can feel like a set of prepared statements, sometimes written by staffers rather lawmakers themselves.

Some research suggests that legislators are increasingly using the technology to announce policy proposals, and not just for campaigning.

A 2012 study by public affairs students at the University of Texas at Austin that looked at three months of tweets from members of Congress found a political divide between what information lawmakers shared, particularly on Twitter.

Republicans often used social media to announce official congressional actions, while Democrats focused more on issues in their districts and states, says Sherri Greenberg, a clinical professor at UT Austin's Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and a former Texas legislator.

Both members of Congress and congressional committees, the subject of another study in 2014, were twice as likely to use Twitter than Facebook, the researchers found.

"You don’t have to use good grammar, you can’t in fact," Professor Greenberg says. "Twitter is seen as that rapid, 24/7 communication tool, and so members and others were much more likely to tweet."

But two-way conversations were more unusual, she says.

"At least at that point, it was being used to get information out, but less in a two-way conversation mode," though there were some instances of lawmakers using the platform to converse directly with constituents, Greenberg says. Surprisingly, while there were many younger members using Twitter, older lawmakers used the platform as well.

Gainous says social media is particularly useful for lawmakers as a way to engage like-minded constituents who may already be familiar with their goals and political viewpoint.

“I’m inclined to think that what they’re doing is preaching to a receptive audience. Some super-liberal and super-conservative isn’t going to go follow someone that they don’t like, so I don’t know that they have to do a lot of convincing," he says.

That also fulfills a more self-interested goal for lawmakers – getting re-elected.

“Legislators and legislative staff, their decisions are instrumental, they’re incentive-driven,” he notes. “If you could ask them further questions, what you’d get is that [responding to a constituent’s post] either provided them an opportunity or it didn’t, it’s beneficial to their underlying goal of securing their positions.”

How they choose to use social media may also reveal a divide between how lawmakers behave on Capitol Hill and how they engage with constituents in their district, often known as “home style,” a term coined by political scientist Richard Fenno in a 1978 book, he added.

Despite ongoing debates about its impact on governance, many lawmakers and prospective presidential candidates have increasingly embraced the immediacy and connection of social media.

But it can be a minefield. For every Donald Trump, there are also lawmakers undone by poorly-worded or mistakenly-leaked social media posts. One of the most striking examples is Rep. Aaron Schock, (R) of Illinois, who resigned in March amid rumors of lavish spending documented in part by posts on his Instagram page, along with a scandal over racist social media posts by his former communications director.

The picture has changed somewhat since 2011, when the foundation last examined Congress’s social media use.

In that survey, 77 percent of staffers said attending events in lawmakers’ districts was “very important” to understanding constituent concerns, but many staffers classified social media as “somewhat important” instead, with only 4 percent of those surveyed describing Twitter as “very important.”

Greenberg, the political scientist in Texas, says she is curious to see how legislators use newer social media platforms to better connect with constituents, both on and off the campaign trail. She singles out the recent use of Snapchat by presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.

"I think that the question is, will it continue to where it’s more conversational, either with media or [special] interests or associations, or – most importantly – with constituents," she says.

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