WASHINGTON – Sen. Chuck Grassley might be a 79 year-old Republican, but he knows how to connect to young American voters better than many of his younger colleagues — via Twitter.
“People make fun of him because he has typos and he has weird misspellings and it ends up looking like a pocket tweet,” said Sarah Burris, a web guru at ActionSprout, a social media engagement company. “But it’s him and there’s something to that. There’s a genuineness to you having access to your elected official.”
Grassley, who has been representing Iowa in Washington since 1975, tweets about a variety of subjects, from Iowa sports teams to his positions on bills. A tweet from Jan. 2 read, “’actively engaged’ loophole that is closed in HouseSenate FarmBills will save $172m every yr according to nonpartisan GAO Keep Grassley bill”.
Grassley also tweets about his frustration with History Channel programming: “I turn to History channel frequently bc I like history. There is nevr any history unless u r an antique dealer. Change name!”
Grassley spokeswoman Beth Levine says that Grassley likes social media because he can communicate directly with his constituents, though he isn’t specifically targeting youth.
“He doesn’t separate one [group of constituents] from another, but obviously Twitter has a younger audience,” she said. Burris, who has ghost-tweeted for political candidates and runs several Twitter accounts of her own, says that embracing social media is key for a Congress with dismal approval ratings to connect with young voters.
With the 2014 midterm elections approaching, capturing the youth vote could greatly benefit members of Congress looking to hold on to their seats. While youth voter turnout has risen for presidential elections to nearly half the nation’s young people aged 18 to 29, their turnout in the 2010 midterm elections hovered around 24 percent, according to estimates based on census data. Using the internet to engage young Americans could help politicians get new voters to the polls.
A recent study by the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network found that more than 90 percent of young people have access to the Internet. Forty-five percent of them report getting news from Facebook or Twitter, while 78 percent communicate via social media.
Every senator now has an official Twitter account and 398 of the 435 representatives have accounts. Because of privacy restrictions, Twitter does not estimate how many of those accounts are run by the members of Congress themselves rather than their staff. Burris said it can be difficult to tell based on her own experience tweeting for candidates.
“I had a candidate where people to this day swore up and down that they were talking to her all the time. And they never were,” she said. “When I gave it back to her when the campaign was over… and showed her how to do it and how to connect with people and what the importance was, she was like, ‘This is really cool…I can talk to people!’”
Many members of Congress pass on the responsibility for maintaining their social media presence to staffers or even interns. Bad idea, Burris says, because the aides often fail to convey a persona that sounds like the member. Getting the tone right is the secret to good ghost-tweeting, but it’s hard to achieve, she says, and young people especially can tell when it’s fake, damaging the official’s credibility.
“Some people get it and some people don’t,” Burris said, “And for the ones that do, I get excited because it really is direct democracy. For the ones that don’t, you’re just like why are you here? Why are you an elected official if you’re afraid of interacting with your own people?”
Burris recounted reading a tweet from Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe’s Twitter account claiming the Republican was co-sponsoring a bill with “Rep. Carl Levin.”
“I was like Carl Levin is a senator and you are co-sponsoring a bill with him in the Senate. It’s like someone gives it to the intern to do.”
This is one of the risks members of Congress open themselves up to by using social media. It’s easy to get information wrong in 140 characters, or to accidentally post something incriminating like former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner’s infamous online exposure of his own infidelity.
Despite the risks, using social media to connect with younger audiences can have a big impact. Some groups, like OurTime.org, use social media to build young people’s interest in government and politics at the national level.
The widespread availability of the Internet, and social media especially, is what makes it the fundamental tool for the creating a completely inclusive political system, according to Matt Segal, co-founder of OurTime.org.
OurTime seeks to educate young voters through online tools and runs social media campaigns to bring attention to youth issues like college debt and voting rights. Segal said that the Internet is helping to incorporate youth who are not in college into the political system.
“The Internet to me is the great equalizer,” said Segal, “It’s the outlet that makes politicians, issues, information accessible to all.”
OurTime moves young people up what Segal calls the “commitment curve.” First, OurTime exposes social media users to political content in the form of a graphic, article or video. Once viewers click on the content, they are given a call to action such as registering to vote, signing a petition or tweeting at a legislator. When the viewer completes the action, OurTime has their information and can use it to push more political content to them.
Once the viewer becomes a follower, Segal said, the online buzz can be translated into physical actions like voting or attending events.
“That’s the theory of change that we have,” Segal said, “which is start with content and then ultimately scale them up to showing up and turning out to vote and to participate and maybe even advocate.”
Using social media to convey political ideas is “all about trying to figure out ways to give people an opportunity to sound off on something, to comment about something, to just engage in a larger capacity,” Burris said. She works with OurTime at ActionSprout. ActionSprout helps online organizations like OurTime expand their followers and push their message to more users through a Facebook app.
“A lot of the organizations we work with are big groups who do incredible work, but they don’t have anywhere near the engagement levels that OurTime does,” Burris said, “If you have ways to engage people, they will keep engaging and stay involved.”
OurTime regularly asks its followers to pass along messages to their representatives about issues that are important to them.
“To interact with a political issue or political content on Facebook or Tumblr or Twitter, you’re going to see that type of content on a daily basis on your newsfeed,” Segal said, “and so it’s not a high barrier to entry whatsoever.”
Some organizations still prefer more traditional methods of building political interest among young people. Blake Green, deputy director of the Texas League of Young Voters, says his group takes a simple approach to connecting with youth. It spends less time online and more time canvassing neighborhoods, going door-to-door.
But the overall goal is the same as that of OurTime — moving youth up the engagement ladder. The League, a progressive organization that is not affiliated with a party, uses pledge cards handed out at the door or at events that asks the recipient to pledge to vote or to take an action. At the bottom of the card is place to express interest in volunteering. And from there, the youth are engaged.
“We don’t speak above their heads. And that’s one of the things that politicians or legislators do is speak all this political rhetoric that’s sort of above their heads,” said Green, echoing Burris’s words about Grassley’s Twitter appeal. “For non-college and college youth, the way we do it is we make it real with them.”
But the greater reach of the Internet provides an avenue for politicians, especially those in Washington who aren’t able to meet face to face all the time, to engage directly and to “be real” with their constituents.
“The more we move towards an internet based political system, the greater the amount of inclusion we’ll have,” Segal said. “And I don’t think then it will as much matter if you’re a college or non-college youth.”