The U.S. Senate on Twitter: Week One

Over the last five years, the social media platform Twitter has become a standard part of the communications package of U.S. senators.  An analysis of Twitter activity by senators in the first four days of the 115th Congress (Tuesday January 3 to Thursday January 6) reveals a large amount of communication with a great deal of variety between members of the Senate. During this period, the 100 members of the Senate posted out 1,792 Twitter posts (“Tweets”).  Many of these posts were accomplished impersonally (as with Senators’ speeches, statements and letters) through work delegated to hired communications staff.

The distribution of these Tweets is uneven. The office of New York Senator Charles Schumer posted the largest number of Tweets during the four days at 79, with Texas Senator John Cornyn not far behind at 69 Tweets. These two most voluminous Twitter users directed their posts in different ways: three out of five of Sen. Cornyn’s Tweets mentioned or replied to another Twitter user, while Sen. Schumer broadcasted his Tweets slightly more than half the time without any reference to any other Twitter user.  While both senators had much to say, Sen. Schumer acted as more of a broadcaster and Sen. Cornyn acted as more of a communicator.  The least communicative Senator on Twitter was Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who only posted one Tweet during the first four days of the 115th Congress:

Thad Cochran's one and only Twitter post during the first four days of the 115th Congress was directed toward Vice President-Elect Mike Pence

For a member of the U.S. Senate, Sen. Cochran’s single Tweet went relatively unnoticed, with only 5 retweets, 24 likes, and 14 replies. Vice President-Elect Mike Pence did not respond to Sen. Cochran’s outreach.

Those senators who do not communicate tend not to be the recipient of communication. Sen. Cochran, for instance, was not mentioned by any other senator during the new Senate’s first week.  Sens. Schumer and Cornyn, on the other hand, received multiple mentions from other senators during the period.  The most mentioned senator during the first four days of the 115th Congress was Catherine Cortez Masto, the new Senator for Nevada.  Most of these mentions by other senators were messages of welcome, although some noted her work, as in this retweeting message from Sen. Schumer regarding the new Senate’s plans to dismantle the existing health care structure:

Senator Chuck Schumer Retweets Senator Catherine Cortez Masto on the repeal of Health Care for millions of Americans

Patterns of communication between members of the Senate via Twitter tended to be partisan, as the following social network graph of mentions and replies indicates. This network graph uses a “spring embedded” visualization technique so that ties (indicated via curved lines) draw connected nodes closer to one another:

Twitter network of United States Senators. Lines indicate mentions or replies. January 3-6, 2017. Red nodes are Republicans, Blue are Democrats, Green are Independents, and gray are non-senate accounts.

Most Democratic senators’ accounts tend to cluster close to one another (although Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado is the network’s only “isolate,” not mentioning or referring to any other Twitter account during the period), and most Republican senators’ accounts also tend to cluster close to one another as well. Interestingly, the two Independents of the Senate, Senators Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, are clustered closely to Democrats’ accounts, Sen. Sanders most markedly so. Sen. King clusters with Democrats in this period because he mentions the same non-Senate Twitter account that they do (as indicated in gray).

There are exceptions to strict partisanship. Many members of the Senate refer to the same non-Senate accounts across party lines, as in the case of Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, represented as the blue dot in the upper left of the network graph. While Sen. Heitkamp does not directly converse on Twitter with Republican senators, neither does she converse with her Democratic colleagues.  Because Sen. Heitkamp mentions an account that is also mentioned by Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, she is clustered with Republicans. Senator Tim Scott (represented as the red dot toward the bottom of the network graph) follows the same pattern, not directly mentioning Democratic senators’ accounts but mentioning a number of the same non-senate accounts that they do. Senator Joe Manchin takes this pattern of cross-partisanship through indirect contact to its fullest extent, referring to the Twitter accounts of Vice President Mike Pence as well as the news outlets Fox News and the news shows Fox & Friends and Morning Joe that are popular targets of communication for a number of Republican senators. In the network of Twitter communication, this places Sen. Manchin squarely in the midst of the Republican upper-half of the Senatorial network.

As the large number of gray-shaded accounts in the network indicate, members of the Senate spend considerable energy communicating to accounts outside the Senate. Some 471 accounts outside the Senate were targets of communication during the first 4 days of the 115th Congress. The most common target of communication during these days was President-Elect Donald Trump, who was mentioned in 17 senators’ Tweets. The next most common target was the account of Planned Parenthood, whose federal funding for poor women’s pap smears and contraception is under threat from Senate budget cutters.  Rounding out the top ten most-referred to Twitter accounts by senators are four Democratic senators, the collective account of Senate Democrats, one Trump cabinet pick (Governor Rick Perry of Texas), and two national news outlets.

Patterns of reference to particular media outlets are highlighted in the network graph below, which is identical to the graph above but which features the accounts of national news outlets with graphic icons. The three most commonly referred-to media outlets during the period were MSNBC (10 references), Fox News (8 references), and C-SPAN (7 references). The location of some of these news outlets is unsurprising. Right-leaning Fox News, Politico, and The Hill are referred to most commonly by by Republicans, and left-leaning NPR is referred to exclusively by Democratic senators. However, the centrist CNN is surprisingly only referred to by Republican senators, and the right-leaning Washington Times is referred by by both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate.

Twitter Network of the U.S. Senate from Jan 3-6 2017 with national media outlets highlighted as graphic icons

 

Data collection and visualization for this post was carried out with NodeXL software.

2015 American Community Survey Table: U.S. Immigrants are Less Likely to be in Adult Corrections Facilities than those born in the U.S.A.

2015 American Community Survey: Immigrants Less Likely to be Housed in Adult Corrections Facilities

Every September, the U.S. Census Bureau releases data regarding the U.S. population from its annual American Community Survey. The American Factfinder website very handily archives this data and makes it available through guided or customized search.

I particularly encourage you to visit American Factfinder and search for a table titled “CHARACTERISTICS OF THE GROUP QUARTERS POPULATION BY GROUP QUARTERS TYPE.” That table sounds dry and uninteresting, but it contains a nugget of gold for any voter who wants to fact-check claims being made lately about immigrants.  In press releases and in speeches this year, political officeholders and candidates have asserted that immigrants to the United States are dangerous and liable to commit crimes.  Of course, it is possible to find tragic stories of crimes committed by immigrants to the United States, just as it is possible to find tragic stories of crimes committed by people born in the United States.  But individual stories are not a good basis for policy. Claims about immigrants as a source of crime are strong in their accusation and as such need to be evaluated on the basis of systematic evidence.

To cut to the chase, data from this table reveal that immigrants make up a lower share of people held in adult corrections facilities in the United States than their share of the U.S. population.  “Native born” Americans — those born in the United States — made up 86.5% of the U.S. population in the 2015, but made up 91.9% of those housed in adult correctional facilities in the United States in 2015.  The “foreign born” immigrants to the United States made up 13.5% of the U.S. population in 2015, but made up only 8.1% of those housed in adult correctional facilities in the U.S. in 2015:

2015 American Community Survey Table: U.S. Immigrants are Less Likely to be in Adult Corrections Facilities than those born in the U.S.A.

This data does not appear to be consistent with the claim that foreigners coming to the United States to live are a unique and concentrated source of crime.  Trends for 2015 match findings for previous years compiled for the National Bureau of Economic Research.  Those who wish to pursue policies against immigrants on the basis that doing so would cut crime rates in the United States need to explain how their assertions match these observations.

Social Media Accounts of Candidates for the Maine State Senate

Deciding who to vote for in state legislative campaigns can sometimes be tricky because thorough coverage of local candidates can be hard to find. In the state of Maine,  state legislators in Maine are known for their accessibility. This may be because Maine’s legislative districts tend to be small; it may also be due to the friendly nature of Maine folk in general. Whatever the reason, getting in touch with candidates for Maine political office is both important and possible.

In this day and age, the quickest way to learn about state legislative candidates and to find their contact information is through social media platforms like individual web pages, Facebook and Twitter.  To help you in that process, the I’ve put together a spreadsheet with information about the social media presence of the 70 candidates for the Maine Senate in 2016, along with some additional contextual information. To download this information for personal use, click here for a Microsoft Excel file.

This sort of information changes all the time — if you have updated information about new accounts, please share a comment below to let me know, or write to james.m.cook@maine.edu.

Two Fact Checks on Donald Trump and Crime

In tonight’s speech, Donald Trump will accept the presidential nomination of the Republican party. The text of Trump’s speech makes the following claims regarding crime in the United States:

“These are the facts:

“Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this Administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement.

“Homicides last year increased by 17% in America’s fifty largest cities. That’s the largest increase in 25 years.”

Let’s look at these two claims and check the facts.

Fact Check of Claim 1: “Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this Administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement.”

Response: The annual FBI report Crime in the United States provides the most recent data on crime, both in the United States overall and in particular communities. Annual reports are released every fall to describe crime in the year before, based on direct reports of police officers all over the country (the delay occurs because it takes time to gather all those reports and carefully tabulate them). The most recent report was released in 2015, describing crime in the year 2014. Anyone who tells you they know about U.S. national crime trends for any more recent year is fibbing — because 2016 isn’t over yet, and because final counts for 2015 are still being worked on.

The trends on violent and property crime victimization rates in the United States are shown below, from the very first page of the 2015 Crime in the United States report, released at the end of September 2015:

violent and property victimization rates in the United States from 1993 to 2014

People can disagree about policy, but it is not possible for policy changes to have led to a reversal in progress in the crime rate in the United States, because there is no evidence that such a reversal exists.

Fact Check of Claim 2: “Homicides last year increased by 17% in America’s fifty largest cities. That’s the largest increase in 25 years.”

We don’t actually know whether this is the case, because final data for 2015 is not yet available. A preliminary count, that is not a final count, that is only for the first six months of 2015, and that is only for cities with over 100,000 in population — has been released. Here it is. Let’s realize, based on this data (look at Table 4), that:

First, we do not yet actually have a final count for 2015.

Second, on the basis that only the first six months of 2015 have been counted, it is not possible to make the conclusion that Donald Trump makes regarding the entire year.

Third, if we actually look at the fifty largest cities in the United States, and look at the preliminary count for the first six months of 2015 (not the entire year), we find that the homicides are up 8.4% in America’s fiftiest largest cities compared to 2014 — Donald Trump’s speech claims twice as much as this.

Fourth, it’s interesting that the speech only focuses on homicide, and not on violent crime in general. The increase in the violent crime rate from 2014 to 2015 is 3.1%.

Fifth, even these rises do not take into account the rise in population of America’s fifty largest cities, increasing the population, which will of course increase the number of murders.

Sixth, even this increase, in the context of the huge falls of the last twenty years, still marks a low crime rate in America’s fifty largest cities in recent history. The preliminary homicide rate in the fifty largest cities of the United States in the first six months of 2015 was 4.06 homicides per 100,000 people. In the first six months of 2015, the overall violent crime rate was 305.7 per 100,000 people. By comparison, in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president and the decline in homicides was already well underway, the homicide rate was 12.1 per 100,000 people in America’s 50 largest cities, and the overall violent crime rate was per 852.9 per 100,000 people. In other words, since Barack Obama became president, if the 2015 preliminary data holds, the homicide rate is down 66.4% and the violent crime rate is down 64.2%.

It turns out that Donald Trump’s claim is based on a post made in very early estimate by a blogger using very early data in January 2016, less than a month after 2015 ended.

This second claim by Republican nominee Donald Trump, like the first, is not supported by the facts.

Presentation Materials for Twitter Adoption in U.S. Legislatures at #SMSociety 2016 Conference

The following are links to supporting materials for the presentation “Twitter Adoption in U.S. Legislatures: A Fifty-State Study” made to the 2016 International Conference on Social Media & Society on Wednesday, July 13 at Goldsmiths, University of London.

1. Free full-text access:

ACM DL Author-ize serviceTwitter Adoption in U.S. Legislatures: A Fifty-State Study

James M. Cook
SMSociety ’16 Proceedings of the 7th 2016 International Conference on Social Media & Society, 2016

2. Download Powerpoint Presentation Slides from presentation

3. Abstract: This study draws theoretical inspiration from the literature on Twitter adoption and Twitter activity in United States legislatures, applying predictions from those limited studies to all 7,378 politicians serving across 50 American state legislatures in the fall of 2015. Tests of bivariate association carried out for individual states lead to widely varying results, indicating an underlying diversity of legislative environments. However, a pooled multivariate analysis for all 50 states indicates that the number of constituents per legislator, district youth, district level of educational attainment, legislative professionalism, being a woman, sitting in the upper chamber, holding a leadership position, and legislative inexperience are all significantly and positively associated with Twitter adoption and Twitter activity. Controlling for these factors, legislator party, majority status, partisan instability, district income, and the percent of households in a state with an Internet connection are not significantly related to either Twitter adoption or recent Twitter use. A significant share of variation in social media adoption by legislators remains unexplained, leaving considerable room for further theoretical development and the development of contingent historical accounts.

Please feel free to review these materials before or after my presentation. I look forward to your comments.

New Lesson Plan: Frame Alignment Operations in Political Testimony

I’m really excited today to roll out my second lesson plan for the political transparency website Open Maine Politics. OpenMEPolitics.com has been mashing together census, social media, newspaper and legislative data for some time now, and now it’s time for me to turn my attention to education. As a professor of social science, I have a vision of political data as a source for learning about issues of representation, gender, framing, and social network formation — but up to now it’s all been in my own head. Sharing lesson plans for undergraduate university students (and upper-level high school students) is a labor of love.

So, I’m glad to introduce Lesson Plan Two: Frame Alignment Operations in Political Testimony, complete with:

  • References to Erving Goffman’s and David Snow’s theoretical work on frames and frame alignment!
  • Examples drawing from obscenity laws and Lenny Bruce on trial!
  • Primary Source Documents for students to find frames: testimony on bills before the Maine State Legislature!
  • An Interactive Padlet where students can post their findings!

Oh, what fun. Give it a whirl, and if you like the gist of it, please feel free to use the lesson plan in your own work with students (a nice link for attribution is all I need.)

Presentation April 22 ’15: Open Maine Politics

Maine friends and colleagues: I’ll be delivering a public lecture this upcoming Wednesday at the University of Maine at Augusta Katz Library. The subject is the Open Maine project, an effort to bring Maine state legislative information into the open information age. I’d love your feedback — and as usual for the UMA Research and Pedagogy series there will be nibbles.


Maine State House, Winter 2015Open Maine: Making Politics Social
A Presentation in the Research and Pedagogy Colloquium Series

James Cook, Assistant Professor of Social Science
Wednesday, April 22, 12 noon
University of Maine at Augusta Katz Library

“Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories.” — Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia

For most of Maine’s history, the records of its state politics have been officially accessible but practically unavailable.  Before the internet age, information about the legislature was kept in side rooms and libraries at the State House in Augusta, making our collective decisions available only to those who had the time and money to stalk about the stacks.

In recent decades, the website of the Maine State Legislature has taken great strides toward making information about the Pine Tree State’s legislature, our legislation and our legislators available to all.  Some roadblocks remain, however:

  • Maine legislative information isn’t easily shared through e-mail, Facebook, Twitter or other forms of social media;
  • Maine legislative information isn’t easily mixed and downloaded for analysis by academics, journalists, citizen bloggers or the curious;
  • It isn’t easy for us to engage in conversation about legislation and legislators in the same environment where raw information is made available;
  • It isn’t easy for us to create, post and share our assessments of our legislators based on transparent and verifiable standards.

This RaP colloquium at the University of Maine at Augusta will present the result of a Presidential Research Grant kick-starting Open Maine, an online civic engagement and education project to make Maine legislative politics shareable, mixable, downloadable, conversable, assessable and transparent. Presentation of the new platform and research outcomes will be followed by discussion and a brainstorm on future development. Students, staff, faculty and members of the public are welcome.

Fire a Nebraska Catholic School Teacher, Hear About it in Maine… the Twitterverse Reverberates

#LetMatthewTeach is a hashtag protesting the firing of a Nebraska Catholic school teacher for being gay.  Last week, #LetMatthewTeach was one of the top three Twitter hashtags used by state legislators in Maine, two thousand miles away from the scene of the kerfuffle.  Clearly, social media can bridge distance in some interesting ways.  I describe some other trends in social media use by Maine state legislators last week in a post to the Open Maine Politics Blog.

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