Congress is hiring more communications staff than ever, trying to influence the public debate and keep up with the social media conversation. Does their public communication match their policy agenda? Lindsey Cormack has tracked congressional emails for 14 years, while Annelise Russell has analyzed congressional tweets. They’ve found differences across parties and genders but say watching what legislators say online provides early clues to changes in their priorities and attitudes. Watching their language can help identify factions and provide a preview of the new Congress.
Guest: Lindsey Cormack, Stevens Institute of Technology; Annelise Russell, University of Kentucky
Studies: “Congress and U.S. Veterans”; “Tweeting is Leading.”
Matt Grossmann: How Congress communicates, this week on the Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. Congress is hiring more communications staff than ever, trying to influence the public debate and keep up with the social media conversation. Does their public communication match their policy agenda? Are they saying the same things to their constituents via email and reporters on Twitter? And are Republicans descending into Trumpian-style tweets or coordinating around clear messaging as they take over the House? This week I talked to Lindsey Cormack of the Stevens Institute of Technology and Annelise Russell of the University of Kentucky in a joint conversation about congressional communication. Cormack has tracked congressional emails for 14 years, while Russell has analyzed congressional tweets. Along with academic articles, Cormack is the author of the book, Congress and US Veterans. And Russell wrote, Tweeting is Leading.
They both found differences across parties and genders, but they both say watching what legislators say online provides early clues to changes in their priorities and attitudes. I think you’ll enjoy our conversation. So Lindsey, why don’t you start out with telling us a little bit of the history of DCinbox and what you’ve learned from more than a decade of studying congressional email newsletters?
Lindsey Cormack: So DCinbox was an interesting project for me. It wasn’t always DCinbox in my head, but when I was in graduate school at NYU, I was around a lot of really smart people who were doing really smart things. And there was kind of this notion of what are you going to do to set yourself apart? And I thought at the time, back in 2009, I was like, I’m sure someone’s studying these emails because I had learned about Justin Grimmer stuff was just starting to… I was hearing about him and I was like, “Okay, so someone’s got to be doing this.” And I inquired at the Library of Congress and I was like, how do we house all these emails? And at that time, and it’s changed since, but at that time they were printing them out and keeping them in a physical copy. And my advisor was like, “Well, then you have to go there and scan them.” And I was like, “Hold the phone.” These are created electronically for electronic dissemination.
There has to be an electronic infrastructure for archiving all of these taxpayer pundit official communications. And there wasn’t, and so then I said, “Well, I think there should be.” And I’ve done that since 2009. The first full set of data was in 2010, and for the last 12 years, every new official email that comes in from a member of Congress is housed and now it’s organized. You can sort it by party, gender, state, all sorts of things. And it’s a very interesting project to me. I love it. I wake up every day and I read five emails as part of my practice to say, what are they talking about and how are they talking about things? And I see things I think in a different way than a lot of people because you kind of get the forest every day or you get a little part of the forest and everyone only ever cares about their three trees, their representative and their two senators.
And I get to see them all. So it’s a great project for me and I love doing it and I just hope I live long enough to keep doing it until someone else likes it enough to do it when I’m gone.
Matt Grossmann: And are there big takeaways or surprises that keep coming up as you read all of these?
Lindsey Cormack: It’s interesting because I’m not sure if it’s lagging or leading some things. So I know a lot of members, especially in the House, in the Republican Party, we’re talking about inflation a lot earlier than on the media. We would hear about things about inflation. And so you can see some of these stuff where they’re leading, where they’re trying to pace set and say, “These are the things that are going to be [inaudible 00:03:31].” But then there’s also lagging. They didn’t get into sending memes until after everyone else on the internet had already started doing that. They write in all caps and they have been for the last four to five years. But that sort of followed I think, what a Trumpian use of Twitter to do these things. And so, it’s interesting to see where they lead and where they lag. And the stuff that surprises me from when I started till now is kind of how dirty it gets or how sort of ugly some of them get because I can’t imagine ever receiving a franked piece of mail, hard copy snail mail that would say some of these things.
But I think there’s some cover or something that changes when you send something online that can let it get a little bit more wild. It’s not as wild as Facebook or as Twitter, but some of the stuff shocks me in how wild it gets.
Matt Grossmann: And Annelise, you’ve been studying congressional communications since graduate school.
Annelise Russell: I got the wild world.
Matt Grossmann: But mostly on social media. So what are your biggest takeaways from studying congressional social media use?
Annelise Russell: Well, I mean think my first takeaway was similar to Lindsey, [inaudible 00:04:36] I was surprised no one was doing this. I come from a journalism background, and so Twitter and social media is the way that I tracked policy and political information. And then I got to grad school and I said Twitter and people looked at me I had two heads. And so it felt like there was this real disconnect between what I understood Congress to be and how things worked versus how the way that we were studying it and sort of agenda setting messaging, information sharing just wasn’t a part of that calculus. And so when you’re in that world of congressional communication, you realize how much it ends up shaping the way that we understand the institution. And so my takeaways initially were Twitter has specifically, because if you’re going to talk about social media and Congress, it’s primarily Twitter since probably 2010. But Twitter importantly tells you a couple of things.
One, it tells you what policymakers are paying attention to. So similar to what Lindsey probably sees in emails, but also it tells you how much a policymaker is paying attention to Twitter itself. And that tells you something about our policymaking institutions [inaudible 00:05:47] writ large. There’s a reputation piece or not reputation, a representation piece to that and there’s also an institutional piece to that that’s sort of critical for how we understand Congress today or at least in the modern era.
Matt Grossmann: So traditionally we studied congressional communications mostly through floor speeches, maybe press releases or other kinds of public documents. Lindsey, what differentiates the emails from these more kind of traditional congressional communications mechanisms?
Lindsey Cormack: So one of it that I think is kind of interesting is there’s no sense that they have to be germane to any one topic. And so floor speeches, they do kind of get to pick their style and what they’re going to talk about there. But in emails it’s totally open. They can really talk about anything. So in their floor speeches, they’re not going to talk about some new opening of a business that happened in their district. That’s just not the content of it and so you get sort of this local view of each member. There’s also some things that look a little bit more like contagion or copies of each other, where you’ll see some terms pop up in one e-newsletter and then a few weeks later, a few days later, you’ll see them in other e-newsletters of similarly situated members. So this happens more in the Republican Party than the Democratic Party.
And those sorts of similarities or overlaps that look verbatim are made possible because they’re really not happening in the same forum. Each email exchange is kind of happening in the mental silo of, this goes to my constituents, [inaudible 00:07:10] floor speeches. There’s more overlap and everyone’s experiencing those simultaneously, and that’s just not what’s happening in the creation or sending them an e-newsletter.
Matt Grossmann: And Annelise, what about Twitter and Facebook? What differentiates those from traditional congressional communications and maybe what Lindsey is seeing?
Annelise Russell: And I think this fits in really well what Lindsey said is that you have platforms and tools with unique audiences and unique purposes. If the audience was the same, they wouldn’t do it, right? Twitter is journalists and bookers. It’s where lawmakers and staff pursue media attention. Facebook is more local politics, town halls, constituent messaging. You’re not going to end up on Fox News because of Facebook, but there’s a good chance and if you’ve done your job well that a [inaudible 00:07:55] tweet could earn you a cable news spot. We use the term sort of social media in aggregate, and I do the same, but when it comes to Congress, there are very big differences in who the audience is and with that audience, what your intent is in how you message based on that digital audience.
Matt Grossmann: So you both came into kind of a theoretical frame where we usually talked about agenda setting as if the media or Congress was kind of putting issues on the agenda and I know that you’ve both done studies in that vein as well. But what fits and doesn’t fit about that traditional theory with modern congressional communications? And have we gained any purchase on who’s speaking first in that process?
Lindsey Cormack: So I think agenda setting is something that only matters if you understand that there’s an agenda. And for a lot of these communications that doesn’t seem to be what needs to be conveyed to constituents. So for instance, within the first two weeks of the new House, House Republicans were like, look at all the stuff that we’re passing. And they just say, “Here, we’re passing all these things.” And all of these things are dead on arrival at the Senate. The president’s not going to agree to them. They’re never going to become law. But that sort of thing doesn’t happen in these communications. That sort of acknowledgement of that doesn’t happen because I think they’re just trying to say, “Look at how much we’re working on behalf of you.” And not really doing that second piece of is this actual work or does this actually change anything? And so it’s not agenda setting so much as it is trying to show the efforts that you’re doing, despite the fact that these efforts many times are for nothing, are going nowhere and are symbolic.
And so I think a lot of symbolic politics happens, at least in e-newsletters, more than anything that looks like functional change of policy politics.
Annelise Russell: And I think that same phenomena exists in social media where I talk about it in terms of agenda setting, but you have to broaden what you understand as agenda setting. Typically, you think about that as, here are my policy priorities, but there is no reason you have to stick to policy on Twitter. And a lot of what they do is policy, sure, but it’s paired with constituent issues or it’s paired with politics. And so you have to think about… It’s setting your priorities, but they’re certainly not necessarily political priorities. There’s communication strategy as a priority. There’s sort of broader goals that you have. And so you get this sort of rhetorical agenda, but it’s very much that can and will reflect your policy agenda. But it’s much more inclusive of these other behaviors and activities that we understand that sort of lawmakers pursue in Congress. And I think whether it’s emails or social media, you get a window into more of that behavior than you would with floor speeches or bill introductions or your more traditional signals.
Matt Grossmann: You both also studied party differences, and obviously we know that there are differences in issue positions. But Lindsey, do we know whether there are consistent differences in which issues the parties talk about and how they talk about them?
Lindsey Cormack: Yes. The first biggest thing on e-newsletters is that Republicans use them more. Republicans forever and always, except for about a three-month window at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic have always outpaced messaging on e-newsletters to constituents. I think there’s a few reasons for why that is. One is the audience tends to be older, they tend to be more receptive to reading email versus tweets, so the constituents that they’re aiming for. But it’s also something where I think the Republican communication machine on the inside of Congress is better at saying, here’s how you do this in gearing them up. So we know that Republicans are better at that. In terms of topics that they focus on, there’s sort of this idea that if your president is of the opposite party of you, maybe you’re just going to take aim at the president a lot.
And I have found that over three presidencies, I have found that Republicans were talking about Obama a ton. Democrats were talking about Trump some and Republicans are again talking about Biden a ton. So I think this sort of messaging strategy of put the focal piece on one person, say that one person is doing a bad job, and that can kind of just cascade down into everything else the Democrats are doing are bad. So I think that’s sort of a strategy that Republicans use far more than Democrats. When we saw the Trump presidency, Democrats talked about Trump some, but Republicans actually talked about Trump more. They liked to say this is the leader and this is good stuff that comes down for the rest of the Republican Party. So they have different approaches to these things. In terms of overall communication strategies, Republicans tend to have more uniform ones where I’ll see phrases that kind of come out from different members at the same time or similar times, or they’ll have tax or approach to a topic.
Democrats not as much, not nearly as much. And so the ways that they do these are different from a use perspective. They also have different strategies. The last thing I’ll say on a clear difference is the days in which they send them, which is really curious. Republicans tend to send more e-newsletters on weekends. So whether that’s a staffer hitting send on a Saturday or Sunday or whether that’s a timing thing. And I think they understand that that’s when people are maybe more likely to sit around and read these things, not in the hustle and bustle of Monday through Friday. Whereas Democrats tend to work on the week and they don’t work as much on the weekends, or at least they’re not sending emails as much on the weekends.
Matt Grossmann: And Annelise, you’ve had a chance to look at party differences sometimes when the Republicans are in the majority and sometimes when the Democrats are in the majority. So to what extent are these kind of differences in communication based on the majority versus kind of consistent differences based on the party?
Annelise Russell: So I think it’s very much similar to the answer that Lindsey gave. I would say differences on Twitter is that you don’t have as much partisan differences in frequency. Everyone’s sort of like, this is where we’re meeting, this is where we’re going to engage. For each party, you have outliers and sort of your average, and there’s some variation, but it is not to the same extent. And so it’s sort of a more bipartisan platform in terms of frequency. It’s also a little bit more bipartisan in terms of what I call communication pain points. The things that make it painful to be a comm staffer or make it painful to be a digital staffer exist across party. The notion now that you have to respond to what so-and-so said on Twitter that morning is going to happen regardless of if you’re a Republican or a Democrat.
And I think if you talk to any communication staff regardless of party, that’s one of the worst parts of their job. The part that it does change is when you get to the rhetoric. A lot of this, particularly in terms of negative rhetoric, partisanship, anger, conflict, is very much majority minority with a heavy emphasis on presidential politics. If you are the out party in the White House, your rhetoric is going to be substantially different.
Annelise Russell: Your rhetoric is going to be substantially different. It will be more negative, it will be more partisan. And most of your content in that vein will be attacking presidential politics or the party in the White House. And again, that’s sort of bolstered if you’re also the minority party in Congress at the time. And that’ll change. And that’s changed over time.
The part that is very similar to what Lindsay was talking about is in terms of partisanship, but what I would call party loyalty, right? How do you bolster your own party’s image? And Republicans are much better at this than Democrats. And this gets to the coordination sort of organizational piece, and that Democrats will turn up the rhetoric on Trump, just like Republicans would’ve turned up the rhetoric on Obama. But Republicans maintain a very consistent level of intra-party support on Twitter where they talk about what they’re working on with other Republican members. They talk about what the Republican party is doing in committee. There’s a certain level of consistent backslapping that happens for Republican members on Twitter that you don’t see for Democratic members so much. Some, but certainly not as noticeable or significant.
Matt Grossmann: Lindsey, who is the audience for these communications? I guess there are ostensibly two constituents, but is it donors? Is it to reporters? Obviously it’s some of each, but does it seem like this is real, these are really attempts to convince voters or are they part of kind of an inter-elite communication network?
Lindsey Cormack: Yeah, so like you said, there’s a lot of different audiences that are possible. I think in the research that I’ve done, it’s not donors, so they’re not usually, one of the first pieces I did with this was I scaled legislators only using the votes they talked about in their e-newsletters. I was like, we could scale them nominate style, or we could only use the ones that they talk about and let’s see what they look like. And they look more like their constituents than their donors if you do that sort of way. And so I don’t think it’s that, I think donors understand that this is a piece of constituent service and outreach that they have to do, so they don’t read into it too much. They’re also not really talking about things that I think would ruffle donor feathers most of the time. And so the audience is generally, I think the constituency, they will tell people forward this, follow me on Twitter, follow me on Facebook, follow me on Snapchat.
And so I think they see this as one necessary component of all of their different communication pieces. And I think not for nothing, it is sort of the most official, in some ways. It’s the.gov of a lot of these things because they’ll have Twitters that are their personal Twitter, they’ll have a campaign Twitter, they’re going to have that, and they have campaign emails as well. But this is them emailing you in their capacity in the same way if they frank mailed you a letter in the mail. And so I think they just see it as something that they have to keep up. It’s not something that every member does, nearly all of them do. I actually think the adoption rate on Twitter might be higher at some points than the adoption rate on e-newsletters. But I think the officialness of it tends to give them a gravitas that they’re trying to say here, I’m a serious person working for my constituents, and I hope that the audience of my constituents sees that in whatever I’m putting out to them.
Matt Grossmann: And what about on social media? Is this, you said it might be trying to get a cable news segment in some cases or fighting with one another? Is this really communications tool to voters, or is this just kind of a inter-elite communication?
Annelise Russell: So I think you have can crack that nut a number of ways. So if you think about lawmakers as far as their social media presence in office, you have things like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Instagram, Facebook, very constituent facing, very voter facing, sort of humanizing particularly for things like Instagram. Senator Angus King has a fantastic Instagram that he runs himself and it’s very much like, “Hey, let me tell you about myself.” And he is like, “I’m folksy.” Versus Twitter, it’s much less folksy or authentic. I’m going to say something and I’m going to try to get attention with that. And there’s variation between the House and Senate and how that behavior works. But oftentimes you’ll see either a very quick response or a very bold statement sort of rubbing up on the edge of an ethical violation that will then launch them onto cable news that evening.
So we saw that, for example, with Senator Josh Hawley in the wake of debates about presidential elector slates. Said something on Twitter earlier in the day and then by that evening he was on Fox News talking about the choices that he made and Democratic blow back and things like that. And so there’s been this sort of pattern of using social media as a way to build your brand, to build clout in a ways that I don’t imagine you would attempt to do with something like email or even Facebook just because you have such a specific audience. And Twitter, particularly in Congress, is a very inside baseball game. And who’s paying attention is like me and everyone else who’s either recently worked in, working in or sort of involved with sort of beltway politics. And that includes things like special interests and lobbying groups and nonprofits, people who work with and engage with folks on the hill, but also the Hill’s own Twitter ecosystem.
Matt Grossmann: So we want to use these communications to get a sense of what might happen in policymaking. But Lindsey, you’ve found, at least in some cases, a divide between what’s talked about here and what’s actually done in terms of legislating. I know that there’s been controversy about how Congress is increasingly hiring communications staff maybe at the expense of some policy making staff. So to what extent is there really a divergence versus this is in the service of the same enterprise?
Lindsey Cormack: I think the quibbles with hiring staff to do this sort of work is probably more geared at staff that are writing tweets, that are writing Facebook posts more than e-newsletters, because I think e-newsletters are a standard legislative exercise. At least they, they’re less specialized. There’s not social media savvy about it, although there are aspects of, is this more likely to be opened or not based on the sort of title that I give it in the email, that’s something. But I think this is not a point where I would say, “Ah, Congress is hiring the wrong people to do these things.” I think there is sort of this good governance argument that could be made that says it’s better if they tell us what they’re doing. Of course, they’re setting the table, they’re figuring out what they’re going to send to you.
But it’s also something where it does give them sort of an easy way to get to constituents fast. And I think during COVID-19, that wasn’t a bad thing. I think at the start of the pandemic, I was actually pretty proud with how most of the members were coming about it. The first few months of it, they were very much like, “Hi, here’s what we know, here’s what’s happening.” And that was a time where people were looking to local officials who didn’t really know what was happening just because they weren’t being briefed by the same people, didn’t have the same capacity to get information and understand the full picture. And so I think there is a good argument for keeping these things and for hiring staff to be able to do them. The less flashy nature of it probably makes it less problematic to people who think we’re wasting money on just advertising for Congress.
Matt Grossmann: Annaliese feel free to comment on that part, but also I did want to bring in your studies of how senate differences as well. Is there a sense that the Senate is using it maybe in a more traditional communications way compared to the house? Or is everybody kind of using social media like other social media users?
Annelise Russell: Yeah, so on that last point that you said, are they using it other social media users? No, there is nothing about congressional Twitter that mirrors sort of real world Twitter. People always say, “Oh, Twitter is not real life.” But in Congress it has very real world implications for what gets done and how people respond and react. In understanding, at least for me, digital sort of investment and how that changes across the house and Senate. Again, it comes down to resources. Congress doesn’t invest in itself and that’s no surprise. And we could probably have a very long conversation about capacity, but digital is often the sort of last man on the team and first one to go. So it’s seen as less of an integral piece of communications and it’s seen as less of an integral piece of an office when you have partisan turnover in Congress.
Oftentimes digital folks, particularly on committees, are going to be the first people to go just because they’re seen as sort of most often the most expendable. On the house side digital is wrapped up in comms, and oftentimes you’ll have a digital manager that will also have a policy portfolio just because they don’t have enough staff. And then on the Senate side, you’ll usually have at least one, if not a couple folks doing digital. And so on that side, you have much more of a team sort of thinking about it as sort of a creative team to be able to produce that content based on how much a senator wants to invest in communications and sees digital essential to what they’re doing. You have some senators who have digital folks, they have rapid response, they have videographers and photographers, but then you also have other folks who don’t see that as central to what they’re doing and rely much more so on the party and the caucus to provide sort of subsidy and support for that.
Matt Grossmann: And Lindsey, you’ve done work on internal party [inaudible 00:24:55] sub brands and differences. So to what extent can we learn about the factions within a party or these factions, like the Freedom Caucus or the squad from their communications?
Lindsey Cormack: That’s a very interesting question. The Freedom Caucus is much more identifiable by what they write versus the squad. I think sometimes we think squad members might be like, I don’t think this, but I know that there can be a popular imagination that they’re running around being “Defund police.” And “Israel is doing really bad things in Palestine.” That’s not what they do in their communications. They say like, I’m having a town hall and we’re going to hold this person accountable by holding hearings, whatever. And so the squad is actually much more mundane in the way that they talk in any newsletters. That’s not really true for the Freedom Caucus. The Freedom Caucus has a set of terms that they use that other Republicans don’t. For instance, right now we’re seeing a lot of the Biden regime. We usually don’t call Democratic government’s regimes. It’s just not how we do it anywhere. And so there’s about 20 members who are doing that right now and in all of their communications, no matter what Biden’s doing, it’s the Biden regime’s decision to do this or that.
There’s also a new term that I’m getting ready to write about called the IRS Army. And this is argument that the Biden regime is taking taxpayer dollars and they’re making an IRS army that’s going to come out to harass, humiliate and insult the US public. This is something that, again, those 20 sort of Freedom Caucus members have been writing to their constituents. I think it does damage to our politics to think that we’re going to have some sort of militarized IRS harassment force coming to look into people’s pocketbooks. It’s also not really true. When we look at the sort of law that they point to as it’s in the Build Back Better piece of legislation that says like, oh, we’re going to have some increased oversight into the IRS because it’s actually really hard to track money in the US nowadays because we have a bunch of different ways of moving things around through Venmo and Zelle and all these other things.
So we don’t have the capacity to keep up with that. And it even has a explicit carve out that says none of these audits will be targeted at any individuals making less than $400,000 a year. And despite the Democratic writing of that saying, let’s make sure there’s no way it looks like we’re going after a common people, the Freedom Caucus is still decided to keep that as their communication piece. And it’s hard, it’s hard to push back against that because no one’s in the weeds reading that legislation, so on page 2,278 or something. And so I think there are communication differences. The ones on the right tend to be better at doing that cohesively, and the left just doesn’t look as distinguishable from the rest of the Democratic party.
Matt Grossmann: Annaliese, you’ve also studied in several contexts the use of emotion or the stimulation of emotion through communications. So is that a way to differentiate the different kinds of members or different factions within parties, or are there sort of consistent differences in the stimulation of emotion?
Annelise Russell: Yeah, no, within party, you’re going to get some differences, right intersectionality, right? What it means to use emotional rhetoric as a Democratic woman versus a Republican woman, those are going to be very different constraints. You have very different audiences and very different expectations from both sort of elite and mass publics. So I think you see sort of nuance, intra-party nuance in those instances. But you do see, again, a lot of partisan driven styles of emotive rhetoric, whether that be on Twitter, whether that be on Facebook. There’s a lot of interesting work being done, particularly in emotions on Facebook, given how that motivates people to respond and how you link that emotive response to political attitudes and political participation. In terms of Twitter, like emotions, I am not a political psychologist, but thinking about how negative emotions, things like anger and conflicts spread through a network.
I don’t think members of Congress are cognizant of this, but they’re cognizant of the fact of what does go viral and thinking about how those different emotions spread across a network, that type of conflict, that type of angry rhetoric is much more likely to go viral. And that’s the piece that I would say lawmakers aren’t aware of, but their staff is. There’s no perfect formula for what goes viral. You’re constantly preparing for something to go viral, but thinking about what is more probabilistic to go viral, it’s things that push the envelope. Things that say things like Regime or IRS Army that would sort of propel more questions or journalists to say, “What the heck is going on here?” And that’s what they’re interested in, is the attention. And that in and of itself is a fundamentally different sort of path for success in Congress that did not exist before. Sort of this communication and media attention based clout and notoriety that didn’t exist outside of lawmaking committee assignments, party leadership, and it’s this new path forward that I’m curious to see, particularly on the Republican side, what the future looks for those who are really investing in that type of communication versus other things they could be choosing to invest in.
Matt Grossmann: So you both studied gender differences in congressional communication as well. So what are the biggest things that stand out in the way men and women communicate in Congress?
Annelise Russell: The two big pieces that I’ve worked on is, if they’re willing to talk to their votes about constituents and then some topics, specific things within COVID-19. So on the general question, who talks about how they vote more? I found that it’s women. There might be a few reasons for this, but in terms of who’s willing to advertise to their constituents, how they decided a piece of legislation, women do it more often than men. But something that I really liked studying during the COVID-19 spaces, is really the communication window all got very collapsed into COVID-19. All the emails for a certain amount of time were COVID-19 because there really wasn’t any other policy consideration to have. And so I did some work, some co-authored work where we were looking at, what are the topics within those sorts of COVID-19 communications, and women more than men within each party, compared to the men within their own party, were more likely to talk about families, school and home.
Whereas we had some other things that we looked at, like hospitals, businesses, those things were indiscriminate between men or women. But there was this issue space that got narrowed. And then even within that, there was a representation piece that seemed to think, to me, if women were not in Congress, these sorts of issues would not have been being talked about in the amounts that they were being talked about. So what is it like to homeschool your kid and work online at the same time? I think that’s something that, had we not had as many women in Congress, we wouldn’t have seen that kind of issue elevate in terms of what we think about a policy space or a policy failure or something that we could come in and talk about more collectively. So they do things differently and that’s to be expected. They’re different.
Matt Grossmann: And is it similar in social media? And maybe comment a little bit on the why. Is this just differences in representation or is it their signs of conforming to expectations?
Annelise Russell: I think from an organizational standpoint, I think staff particularly who work for women, tend to be a bit more cautious or just they anticipate more blow back whether or not they’re actually get it. But there’s this assumption that it is likely to come, particularly women of color, because the people who are doing digital and comms for those folks are at the front line of reading all of those responses and those communications.
In terms of what they talk about, I would say the key difference in terms of policy and agenda setting, is they have a more diverse agenda. And this gets at the fact that women have to do everything that men do, but they have to do it backwards and in high heels. And when it comes to policy agendas, it’s somewhat similar in that they have a more diverse agenda. So they’re talking about policy at a similar rate, but they’re talking about a greater number of issues. So they’re signaling expertise, if you will, in a greater number of issues than their male colleagues, who tend to focus more on a handful of topics, whereas women, particularly in the Senate, certainly have their issue priorities, but will comment on a broader range of issues. And that’s consistent across party.
Matt Grossmann: So you both have also studied this through some tumultuous periods in American politics, including Trump and COVID. So I’ll start with Trump, but what can we learn about the extent to which Trump was really bringing something new that changed everyone else’s communication, versus he was just a symptom of the kinds of communication trends that we were seeing beforehand?
Annelise Russell: I think it was incredible how the Congress adapted to Trump. I think it was incredible how congressional Republicans fell in line with a lot of the talking points that he had. The starkest thing to me was, again, in COVID-19 when the space gets collapsed, the first members of Congress to write to their constituents about wearing masks and how to make their own masks, were Republicans, because the Republican Surgeon General came out, or Republican appointed Surgeon General came out and said, “Here’s what we need to do and here’s how you can make masks at the time when no one could get them.” And Republicans were the first ones to put that out on their constituent newsletters. And Democrats weren’t saying Don’t wear masks. There was one who said don’t, because her argument was you should keep the protective equipment for hospitals.
But it was really after Donald Trump expressed hesitancy or reservation about masks, and then made this political toe dipping to say, I think this is a control thing, that Republicans stopped doing it. And so, this was something that I saw unfolding in real time, because I was just reading these all the time during COVID-19 and it blew my mind and I ended up publishing something on that too. Because it’s baffling to me in some ways, but in other ways it’s not. It’s the power of politics, it’s the power of successful politics, it’s storytelling. And I think there was this moment where he could do no wrong. He could say nothing that many Republican voters would not agree with. And so, it was something that Republicans in Congress fell in line and said, “Oh, I guess if he’s the leader and he’s doing this, I’m going to go ahead and follow the leader and hopefully it works out for me in the same way it’s working out for him.”
It was the first few months, again within Congress from a staff perspective, there was a bit of whiplash. There are a lot of people that from the first few months of Trump are a reason a lot of people left the Hill. And not because of the rhetoric itself, just trying to figure out how to adapt to the new normal of Twitter and constant communication. And what that new reality was, was a lot for folks. Because the irony though that I often talk about, is that Trump really wasn’t this… We can debate good, bad, or indifferent, but that he wasn’t in terms of social media, use this fire starter but rather an accelerant, that a lot of what he took advantage of and pushed further than anyone anticipated were norms that had been eroding in Congress prior.
And then, a lot of what was getting done on social media had already been going on in Congress to a certain extent, but he normalized a lot of that behavior. He made it okay, he increased it and made it a lot more visible than, again, anyone beyond me, myself and I, while I was working on the book, really realized. And so, a lot of that behavior, you’d had Republicans calling out President Obama, particularly over healthcare. There was a lot of tension between president and party and a lot of back and forth, but you’ve never before had that level of engagement from the president himself. And you also have to take into consideration that he’s engaging with a body that has very much an institution of norms and doesn’t have a capacity to really deal with that sort of extreme communication behavior. And how you deal with that in Congress, the ethical line as to what’s acceptable on social media and what is not, is very much unclear.
It’s very much a system of, it’s only a problem if someone tattles on you. And even then it’s unclear what that path forward is. And so, there wasn’t a mechanism to do anything about it, particularly because he was extraneous to the institution. And so, Congress took the ball and ran with it. And it continues to be a place where there are concerns about calling out members, specifically on social media and what the impact of that is. And is that okay? And are the choices that we’re making for social media acceptable? Because again, Congress doesn’t have as clear of a mechanism for dealing with a lot of the messaging questions that come up on a regular basis and Trump exploited that. This is something else that I actually feel is problematic for how our politics has evolved is, there’s not really oversights to when members go into that ethical gray or clearly over the line in terms of what they’re communicating.
So back when we were writing franked mail, you’d have to get things approved and they couldn’t be overtly political. They can’t single out people in ways that they do. And that is theoretically and in practice, different for what they’re doing in online communications. So the rules of the frank still apply. They’re not ask for your vote and they’re not going to ask for your money. So that’s the difference between official versus a campaign. But they’re still not meant to wade into the very political waters that they choose to wade into oftentimes, and it goes unpunished. And then the second thing that I think is problematic is, we’re supposed to have firewalls between your official email lists and anything that you port for later campaigns. And I have found, on more than a handful of cases, that’s not happening.
That there are people who are taking their official lists and whether it gets in there accidentally or intentionally, there is a bleed. And that is something that’s different by party too, that happens far more often on the Republican side. One of the few times that happened on the Democratic side, and I always reach out to the member of Congress to say, “Hey, it looks like your list has gotten to another list.” And the ways that I know that is how the backend of DC inbox works. And Jacky Rosen was the senator from Nevada.
She stopped her campaign communications for two and a half weeks, so that they could figure out how it was that these emails got into the campaign stuff. And that’s never happened anywhere else, but I think these are important things. If we believe that we’re interfacing in an official constituent representative interaction and not thinking that it signs you up to be like a lifelong, let me get all your emails that ask me for money and tell me how bad the other party is. We want to know that there’s a difference there. And the fact that we don’t police that, it’s not punished, there’s not resources to do it. No one in the house cares to do it at all. I think it’s problematic for our politics, but-
Matt Grossmann: And at least the social media platforms had taken some interest in trying to police politicians. But of course, we’re speaking right after the Elon Musk takeover of Twitter, when a lot of policies are changing. I spoke to Shannon McGregor on the podcast a few weeks ago, and she thought some of the changes were overblown, not in their bad sense, but in to how much they would change behavior on the platform. What are you seeing so far?
Annelise Russell: Yeah, a lot of stasis. I make it a habit never to disagree with Shannon, but I think there’s a lot of wait and see still. So we had a lot of this happening right around the election. I think given, particularly in Congress, there was a lot of wait and see because you have to have to note at this time, congressional communication staff are at their lowest point, because a lot of them have left to go do campaign duty. And so, a lot of congressional staffs are working at a bare minimum at this time. And so, trying to decide what are we going to do about Twitter? What are we going to do about Musk? They didn’t have the capacity to do that. And then you go head into Christmas and there’s not a lot of signal.
You see a lot of Democratic members at least claiming a spot on Mastodon, but you don’t see a lot of mass migration elsewhere. And so at this point, again, we’re still somewhat wait and see, but we’ve been told that the end is near persistently and the journalists haven’t left. And so, my go, no-go has always been, do the journalists decide to go elsewhere? And until that point, there’s no incentive for lawmakers to go elsewhere. They don’t have a viable platform. It’s a very interesting collective action problem about what they do about it. We’ve had, particularly on the Republican side, alternative platforms crop up where you see things like Parler or Drew Social, but they’re still on Twitter for the most part. It’s still the primary mechanism for breaking news or following what’s happening either politically or legislatively, and it’s where staffers are still going. So to a certain extent, I don’t think there’s any indication that Twitter’s days in Congress are numbered, because there’s no viable alternative right now.
Matt Grossmann: Lindsey, we’re also speaking at the beginning of a new Congress. To what extent can we tell what’s going to happen with the House Republicans from their email newsletters? I think you mentioned that several of them are touting passing bills. Does that mean that we should expect high productivity or what are you seeing so far that would lead to some prognosis for what’s going to happen in the next two years?
Annelise Russell: We’re certainly going to see talking about doing a lot, but I feel it’s going to be like after Obamacare was passed, everyone saying, “I voted 60 times to repeal replace Obamacare.” And guess what? It’s still the law of the land, because that’s not what happens. And so, I think we’re going to get a lot of talk. I think it’s going to be, we pass this and this and this. I think there’s going to be a lot of symbolic legislation. If their communications are any indication of what they’d like to actually do within the Republican Conference, I think there’s a set of hearings and then maybe impeachments that’ll come for a few, or at least votes or showdowns or something that makes it higher elevated. So Mayorkas is the Secretary of State, I think… Or not Secretary of State, excuse me, is Secretary of Homeland Security, is under fire in a lot of their e-newsletters that says this border crisis cannot be and it’s something where the buck has to stop somewhere. And if it’s not with Biden, it’s this person. So we probably need to impeach them.
So I think it’s going to be using this majority in an oversight committee hearing, special conference style versus then getting a lot of legislative pieces done. I do think there’s a little bit of room for legislative hope. I think there’s some stuff on veterans policy, which is another thing that I like to study. But it’s a really interesting space, because it’s mostly bipartisan. There’s not an anti-veteran lobby. Democrats and Republicans do well by serving veterans, both in terms of their lip service and in terms of the legislation they pass. I think there’s actually some interesting space in drug policy. So I think if you look at the clinical trials that are coming down for psychedelic medicine, that’s something that unexpectedly is bringing Republicans and Democrats together, because there’s a set of things, like PTSD and depression and obsessive compulsive disorder ,that are plaguing veterans.
And right now, veterans and active duty service members are prohibited from engaging in any of these clinical trials, because these are schedule one drugs. And so, there’s Republicans from Texas who are saying, “Hey, I think this shouldn’t be.” And there’s Democrats from many different places that think, maybe this isn’t the way to go. So I think there are points that we can see some interesting compromise and maybe some policy movement, but they’re not in spaces that are really on the radar for most, it’s not going to be a big immigration policy change. I doubt that’s coming for us in the next two years, but I do think there some room for policy movement.
Matt Grossmann: There’s been a lot of talk about the debt ceiling and using it for leverage, but there’s sort of two critiques that you might be able to help us with. One is that Republicans stop talking about the deficit at all during Republican presidents and then they come on strong under Democratic presidents. But another is that maybe this time is different in that at least some of the Tea Party rhetoric was about big government and too much spending, and maybe we’ve moved to a more social issue era for Republicans. Either of those critiques gain credence in your data?
Lindsey Cormack: It’s certainly true that I think people who are using these e-newsletters tend to believe that constituents have a very short memory and there’s no one who’s calling them out on the other side. So it’s not like you get an e-newsletter and then someone says like, “Hey, that e-newsletter doesn’t look true.” That never happens. They get the first and the last word on it. So just ’cause I didn’t mention this for the four years when a co-partisan of mine was in the presidency doesn’t seem to hurt anyone when they’re kind of crafting these communications.
I think the debates on the debt ceiling and all sorts of budget stuff are going to be very interesting. And I think Democrats probably have a lot of ammunition they’re just not going to use. So these forgiveness of the PPP loans, that’s not something they’re talking about, which we could say, okay, look, this was a government spending pro investment into things and it mostly helped Republican shareholders or Republican stakeholders, small business owners or big business owners. Democrats probably aren’t going to do that sort of stuff. And so in the same way Republicans will do things that they haven’t done consistently in the past, no one will care, no one will care that Democrats don’t point this out either.
This is all to say that I don’t think members of Congress always get this piece right, but I also don’t know that it matters. So they’re getting it right enough. They’re getting it as right as they need to be because constituents don’t really think about it in the same ways that perhaps you do or anyone else who’s really intensely focusing on the Congress.
Matt Grossmann: Annelise, social media tends to be a very popular topic for students to write about, but sometimes we’re slow to emphasize it. To what extent are the students right and this is the future versus we’re right and it’s a little more peripheral to politics than the students think?
Annelise Russell: Well, I tell my students I study Twitter, and at this point they think, “Oh, you studied that.” There was a point at which it was cool, and now I’m not sure my students think that anymore. I’m pretty sure they’re like, “Okay. Great.” A handful of them use it regularly, but they’re all on TikTok or Instagram much more readily than I am.
So if I had some b-roll content, and I think they might be more interested. I think don’t Twitter itself is the piece that’s interesting or what we should be paying attention to. But I think broadly how we engage digitally and how we communicate and how we talk about a policy. I often talk to my students about the fact that how we talk about a policy, how we frame a policy, how we advertise a policy is just as important as the actual policy details themselves. Because most people aren’t going to understand the details. Most people are never going to hear about the details. It’s going to be like Lindsey said on page 400. And so all they’re going to know is sort of top line information, and Twitter or whatever platform you have is really, really good for that.
And so understanding the nuance of whatever platform that is, understanding how it works, not only how it works as it publicizes information, but how it shapes the way the institution itself moves information and how staff and those within it communicate with one another, I think that is extremely important because then it shapes the information they have to make further decisions, adapt and respond to other policy, and it shapes what they’re thinking. We’re all shaped by our everyday norms and what affects us and our own stories. And Twitter, for better or worse, shapes the lives of those who work in Congress and it will affect how they do their job and what they’re paying attention to.
Lindsey Cormack: And Annelise, I also, I love that you’re doing the work that you’re doing with Twitter, and I kind of think sometimes they’re like, “Oh, but is there something else that’s coming out that’s going to be it?” So is it going to be rumble or is it going to be these other things? And it’s like, it’s never going to be one thing. It’s always going to be a bunch of these things. And we sort of owe it to ourselves as people who are studying the contemporary Congress to get into all of those things.
And I also really like what it does for the sense of history. So I like what it does in terms of saying, what did it used to be? Because it’s different. And the mediums by which we’re communicating matter. They modulate the messages we’re able to send, how we’re able to receive them, what decision making’s like, what consensus is, and like you said, framing.
And so for the stuff that you do or anyone who’s studying any social networks, I never think like, “Oh, that’s only going to be a fad.” And what do I know? I’m studying junk mail essentially, so I’m studying things that most people delete. But I think it is indicative of some purposeful behavior that some member that we all elected to run our government decided to do. So it’s worthwhile to know about it. I think it’s people do this.
Annelise Russell: The way I always talk about it is regardless of what the actual outcome is, the person doing it has intent. The person who does it perceives it as important. And as long as they perceive that behavior, that platform, that tool as important, it will shape the way they do their job and will shape the way they see policy and politics. And until that sort of perception changes, it’s a vital part of what they’re doing.
Matt Grossmann: And we do have some comm staffers who listen. So is there any advice from the academic world or things that they should know about that maybe they wouldn’t perceive on a daily basis that you get to perceive since you’ve read so many of these? What would be your tips?
Lindsey Cormack: Oh yeah, we’re watching. Someone’s looking at this. Trying to think about it. I mean, I think I don’t have tips for how to do their jobs better because I think they’re all probably optimizing, doing a hard job as well as they can. But I will say in terms of on the person who’s reading on the other side of it, I think there is like a … there’s a balance that a lot of politicians, because I do this for local New York City politicians too. No one wants to read an email that’s as long that it gets to message clipped and there’s more. No one wants to do that ever for anything. And so I don’t know if that’s the job is I have to tell them everything that I did. Okay, then you’re not really telling them much because they’re just not going to do it.
I think the shorter topic specific ones are actually much more digestible for many people instead of, here’s an e-newsletter that covers the 12 things I did over the last seven days. It’s like I’m not going to do that. So I think Republicans tend to be better at this, sending shorter e-newsletters as well. So that might be something that people, just from a marketing perspective, what allows people to read your things in a very cluttered inbox that’s going to have a ton of other things, not asking them to give you 20 minutes of their time to get to the bottom to realize that there’s another 20 minutes that’s clipped. I think that probably is a good change that could be implemented.
Annelise Russell: Yeah, no, I mean it’s … guess I don’t have any sort of immediate checklist, but I think the one thing that comes through, particularly from the interviews that I’ve been doing with folks on the Hill is there’s often this sense that comms and digital is very siloed, particularly in the House side because you’re one person in an office. And so it can be a very isolating experience. And most of the time when you’re talking to folks, you get this sense that they don’t really know what other people are doing, and it’s hard to get a sense of how they fit into their office dynamic.
So from my research, after having talked to so many people, I feel like I need to sit down and write that you’re not alone. There’s this very sort of cognitive psychological aspect of this where it’s like, no, what you’re feeling, this sort of siloed, singular feeling it’s very common across party, across chamber that there’s this belief that you know what you’re doing is important, but you still to a certain extent feel like you have to defend your role. And then you also feel like you’re sort of operating a little bit on an island. You’re not part of the policy team that’s tackling this or that. You’re sort of doing something that someone assumes that is costless, and that’s something that anyone can do.
But we’re in an era where just because anyone can have a Twitter account doesn’t mean you’re going to do it well.
Matt Grossmann: And I want to give each of you a chance to tout something that you’re working on now. So Lindsey, what’s next for you?
Lindsey Cormack: So I was just granted a sabbatical for next year, and I’m very excited about this. To be an adult, to be able to have a year to recalibrate, rethink about what you’re doing, it’s an incredible gift that academia is giving me.
And what I’m hoping to do with that is I’m finishing a project called How to Raise a Citizen. And it’s a book that’s geared towards parents. And the argument is this kind of falls to parents. And every year I teach Introduction to American Politics, and I’ve seen like 900 kids. And every year I get people who get some very basic things wrong. And I never think like, “Oh, that’s a stupid 18, 19, 20, 21 year old.” I never think that. I think we are failing them as a system. If we say, “All right, you’re 18, why don’t you go vote, sit on some juries. Oh, but you don’t know what the government structure is of the United States? You don’t know who to call if you have this issue or that issue?”
And so this is a book project that looks into why schools don’t do this. And the short reason is they’re test prepping because no one gets into college based on how much civics they know. And they’re afraid because parents can be kind of crazy about what you talk about in terms of the classroom, things that are okay in politics. And so really, they’re not hearing this. And then we thrust them into the public sphere and we’re like, “Okay, go ahead. Go do these things.”
So this is a book that says here’s why it’s not happening, and here’s how you can do this, and here’s why it shouldn’t be so scary, because it’s not. I think politics is fundamentally good. I think it’s necessary. It’s going to recreate itself somehow. It always has. Before we had politics, we had religion, which is the first version of politics. So this is something that I think we owe it to our children to do. And I’m really excited about this project because I want it to be something that’s approachable for parents who themselves oftentimes weren’t raised by parents who had discussions about politics. It was seen as rude or taboo or something that you like just wouldn’t do ’cause it would ruffle feathers.
And we don’t necessarily need to ruffle each other’s feathers, but we do need to have some sort of understanding of what’s going on here so that we can do it better.
Annelise Russell: And to follow up again. I think Lindsey always has good ideas. And so book project, same on my end. I just got done with six months at the Library of Congress on leave there as a research fellow working and talking with folks on the Hill about digital norms, sort of how we got here in terms of our communications and digital history, what it looks like today, how you do digital communications on the Hill today, and sort of what that means for how the institution function.
So a lot of what we know about social media is from campaigns and sort of what it means for representation. I wrote a book about it. It’s not that bad. But also we don’t know a whole lot about what it means for the institution itself and how Congress functions and what goes on behind the scenes.
And behind the scenes so much of the information that staffers have is what gets shared on Twitter. The interactions that they have with journalists are often based on things that happen on social media or interactions that they have digitally. And sort of tracking how that changed over time and what that looks like is what this next book project is.
So at this point, I’ve talked to like 175 staffers and professionals inside Congress to really get at what digital and communications looks like today and how that’s changed over time and why it’s different from when Newt Gingrich was on C-SPAN to what it means to be on Twitter today and sort of how that’s evolved over time.
Matt Grossmann: So those both sound great and we look forward to reading. Anything else we didn’t get to that you want to include or any take home message you want to leave us with?
Lindsey Cormack: I think for people who are studying communications, there has to be a move to understanding that the medium is different. Things that we find in one medium, don’t hold in other mediums because they’re geared differently. And I think we’re getting that message out.
I think Kelsey Shoub and Rachel Bloom are doing some work that looks like this. And this is sort of what I hope happens for academic looks into political communications moving forward, is like Pol Comms is not just Pol Comms. It’s everything that’s under there. And the findings in one branch don’t necessarily mean that you’re going to find that in another little branch of political communications. That’s my last little thing.
Annelise Russell: Yeah. Social media is a plural, not a singular.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from The Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. If you liked this discussion, here are the episodes you should check out next linked on our website: How Online Media Polarizes and Encourages Voters; How Misperceptions and Online Norms Drive Cancel Culture; The Influence of Twitter on Journalism and Politics; Did Facebook Really Polarize and Misinformed the 2016 Electorate; and Does Diversity in Congress Translate Into Representation? Thanks to Lindsey Cormack and Annelise Russell for joining me. Please check out Congress and U.S. Veterans and Tweeting is Leading, and then listen in next time.