WASHINGTON—Social media was supposed to be the great equalizer, but a majority of elected officials in Canada, the United States, and elsewhere are struggling to connect with people on Twitter, a new study suggests.
Among rank-and-file federal legislators in five countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, 25 percent of active tweeters produced 65 percent of the content, says the study, released Monday by the Washington-based Pew Research Center.
“Some of these tweets produce tens of thousands of likes and retweets from the broader Twitter public,” the centre said in a release. “But in the majority of cases, tweets from these legislators simply pass from view into the internet void.”
The Pew analysis—more than 1.3 million tweets from 2,056 politicians—was conducted during the first six months of 2019, when political discourse in Canada was dominated by talk of the SNC-Lavalin scandal and the tensions between the Prime Minister’s Office and former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. In the U.S., it was President Donald Trump’s state of the union speech, and Brexit in the U.K.
In many ways, it reflects the findings of a broader 2018 study of adult Twitter users in the U.S., which found that 80 percent of the content was produced by just 10 percent of American users of the platform.
U.S. Twitter users tend to be younger, wealthier and more educated than their non-tweeting counterparts, and are more likely to identify as Democrats, that study found. They also tend to be women and more politically active.
In Canada, MPs on Twitter generated a median of 48 tweets per month over the course of the study, which was conducted during the first half of 2019, but attracted a median of just five “likes” and one retweet per month. Of those, the 25 percent most active users of the platform received 80 percent of likes and retweets.
Lawmakers in the U.S., the most active group of the five countries studied, had monthly medians of 79 tweets, 18 likes and five retweets.
Elected officials tended to be more prolific than their appointed counterparts. In Canada, only 67 percent of senators were active on Twitter, compared with 94 percent of federal MPs.
Across the board, heads of state and party leaders—whose own accounts were excluded from the study—received the most mentions, with President Donald Trump leading in the U.S. at 80 percent and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Canada with 73 percent.
2019 was also an election year in Canada; Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer earned 58 percent of Canadian mentions, followed by his party’s account at 45 percent and the Liberals at 42 percent. Wilson-Raybould, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and Finance Minister Bill Morneau also landed in the top 10 of mentions.
A tweet by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in response to the March 2019 shootings in Christchurch received the most retweets from legislators during the study period, including 38 in the U.K.
Upstart New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, easily one of the most active Twitter users on Capitol Hill with some 6.8 million followers, won the most likes during the study for a video of herself dancing outside her office—a response to a similar viral video that surfaced from her years at Boston University.
The Pew study even delves into the most popular emojis used during the study window: the Canadian, U.S. and Australian flags dominated in their respective countries, while face emojis are more popular in New Zealand than anywhere else.
By James McCarten