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In today’s world, tweets by members of Congress can tell you a lot: what they’re prioritizing, how they’re using their political capital, and the messages they want to get out to constituents, colleagues, and the media.
Because of all that, I decided recently to analyze Twitter feeds for the four members of Rhode Island’s Congressional Delegation using a social science research method called coding. Coding essentially means categorizing data to help you draw conclusions from the information you want to evaluate.
In the case of congressional tweets, I created topical areas—such as gun control, climate change, Russia, health care, immigration, and police reform—and tallied up the number of tweets that referenced each issue.
Because tweets can be about several topics at once—a tweet about Donald Trump can also be about Russia and Robert Mueller—some tweets were coded in multiple categories.
When applicable, I coded tweets on a few subjective variables, namely whether a tweet expressed a moderate, progressive, or conservative opinion, and whether tweets were partisan or apolitical in nature.
I began with Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who appears to be the most active tweeter on the state’s congressional delegation. I’m going to give my analysis of Whitehouse’s tweets in this post, and cover tweets by Sen. Jack Reed, Rep. David Cicilline, and Rep. Jim Langevin, all Democrats, in later articles.
My analysis covers the period between Feb. 18, 2018, and March 18, 2018, i.e. the last month.
I should note that I do not have an advanced degree related to social science research methods, but I did do fairly substantial coding research in college and even had work published in the academic journal Teaching Sociology. So I have some sense of what I’m doing here.
I did also send an email to Whitehouse’s office, asking whether the senator writes most of his tweets or whether staff members run his Twitter feed for him. I haven’t heard back yet.
On to my analysis of Sheldon Whitehouse’s tweets and retweets, which numbered 311 over the last month:
As I got further along into Whitehouse’s tweets, I could tell the top category for the senator was going be either climate change or what I’d categorize as essentially disparaging posts about Pres. Donald Trump.
Climate change won out. A total of 89 tweets and retweets referenced climate change and the environment, and 77 were related to Trump. That works out to an average of more than three tweets per day on climate change, and 2.7 per day about the president.
Of Whitehouse’s total tweets, I judged 89 to be partisan in tone, and found 175 to express an opinion, either explicitly or implicitly, that people would likely consider progressive.
Whitehouse mentioned Russia 32 times and referenced special counsel Robert Mueller 10 times. He posted 33 times about gun control, three times about Devin Nunes (no relation), and 24 times about money in politics.
I found 60 tweets to be apolitical. These were oftentimes related to community issues or events in Rhode Island.
While more than half of all posts were progressive, I found these tweets and retweets to also be narrowly focused in terms of issues covered. Indeed, many causes valued by left-leaning voters were entirely ignored, which I’ll get to in a few paragraphs.
Tweets about climate change and the environment ranged from posts about climate news to legislation to attacks against EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and the fossil fuel industry.
Climate change tweets were mostly progressive, although not universally. Five posts on climate change advocated for nuclear energy as part of the solution to climate change.
The use of nuclear energy is hotly contested amongst environmental activists, as some worry about the safety of its production and storage of its waste.
Whitehouse’s climate tweet totals were also a little inflated by numerous retweets of shout-outs the senator received from colleagues as he approached his 200th Senate floor speech on climate change on March 13.
On his Twitter feed, Whitehouse—known for being an outspoken critic of polluters, right-wing donors, and the Republican Party—is arguably most vocal on issues where he’s unlikely to alienate the majority of Rhode Island voters.
A blue state with a sizable coastline is likely to reward strong talk about global warming and rising sea levels. The same can probably be said for lashing out at the NRA and a Republican president despised by Democrats. Whitehouse’s tweets reflect that.
The senator, however, is quieter, and sometimes almost completely mum, on issues that resonate with left-leaning voters but are at the same time politically fraught.
For instance: while the senator mentions health care in 36 tweets or retweets, 15 of these posts were also coded “community,” meaning the mentions of health care came in relatively apolitical contexts about work being done by local health care providers, such as Coastal Medical.
Several other health care references came in posts promoting the success of the Affordable Care Act in Rhode Island as well as tweets decrying the potential effects of Republican legislation on the health care system.
While Whitehouse has signed on as a cosponsor to the Medicare For All Act sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Rhode Island’s junior senator did not mention single-payer health insurance on his Twitter account in the last month.
Whitehouse gave zero mentions to police and prison reform, and only one reference to racial justice, which came in a tweet also coded under community that recognized Rhode Island civil rights leader Cliff Montiero.
Veterans receive six mentions on Whitehouse’s feed, but foreign wars and interventions are overlooked. In the last month, Whitehouse discussed Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen zero times. The eight times Whitehouse discussed defense and national security issues his focus was on areas such as cyber security and the effect climate change has on public safety.
The one mention of women’s issues was a post recognizing International Women’s Day on March 8.
And, while Whitehouse dedicated numerous posts to Russian actions in the 2016 presidential election, he did not ever discuss nuclear weapons, nuclear war, or peace issues. Russia and the U.S. hold the vast majority of the world’s nuclear inventory.
With March Madness underway, sports came ahead of war and peace with two posts. Infrastructure, financial reform, and net neutrality received five, three, and three mentions, respectively.
I’ll be posting my analysis of tweets sent out by the state’s other members of Congress in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.
Alex Nunes is an independent journalist based in Rhode Island. He has contributed reporting to NPR, Rhode Island Public Radio, The Providence Journal, and The Day of New London, Conn., among other news organizations. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a bachelor’s in sociology from Rhode Island College.
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