One of the growing frustrations about the American political process is the ever-widening distance between our elected representatives and the people that vote them into office. Voting is incredibly important, but it can seem painfully insignificant before the much more vast influence that money has. But there might be a workaround for the average person trying to get a politician's attention: Social media.
Erin Kelly in USA Today recently covered a new study pointing out the great influence social media can have on politicians and (perhaps more importantly) their staffers. The study, from the non-partisan Congressional Management Foundation, which surveyed congressional staffers and aides, found that only a relatively small number of social media messages or responses could get a congressional office to act.
"Less than 30 posts responding to a lawmaker's Facebook or Twitter communication is enough to cause a congressional office to take heed of the public feedback, according to 80% of congressional staffers" Kelly reported. Additionally, more than 1/3 of staffers said it would take 10 or fewer posts to get their attention.
Brad Fitch, the founder of the Congressional Management Foundation, credits social media's "individualized nature" for its ability to cut through the clutter, saying "there is an authenticity and immediacy about social media that is unique," which sets it apart from the thousands of pre-scripted emails and letters congressional reps get from special interest groups and lobbying firms.
But there may be another unstated reason that elected officials are more eager to respond to social media than other more traditional communications.
The difference between a social media contact and phoning or writing to your congressman or legislator is very simple: social media is public. Letters and phone calls are typically observed by no one besides those directly involved, while a social media post is usually an open conversation for all to see. And, if not handled properly, it can become a big thing, via shares and retweets and so on.
And that's the threat as well as the potential of social media in politics. It's a way of controlling image and PR, and if that's your 'in' to get a representative to act, so be it.
The survey noted that reacting and replying quickly to a politician's social media post is important in getting their attention, as their staff members usually monitor posts only for a limited amount of time before moving on to new posts and issues. Within a few hours of a post or faster is best. After more than a day you should find a new post to reply to.
It also helps greatly if you are contacting your own actual representative. Congressional representatives and senators are more likely to respond to the needs of their own constituents, so if you are one, try to make that clear in your message.
Most important, said Fitch, was the participation itself. "Anybody who chooses to participate in the debate is going to have more power than those who don't." You can sit on your butt all you want, but that means you have no right to complain when your rep doesn't vote your way. You have to do something, in other words.