Why Congress can't quit Facebook. Or Twitter.

The 2020 engagement boom, the great link drop-off, the reason every third tweet is about Hunter Biden, & other findings from fascinating new research

If you happen to have taken in yesterday’s Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Instagram’s impact on the emotional health of teens featuring Facebook’s global head of safety, Antigone Davis, you likely have an opinion on the great debate over whether it was one of Congress’s better or worse performances when it comes to these sessions with tech company executives. But it’s difficult to ignore that these sessions are still hugely performative, meant to attract public attention to something the Hill considers important at the moment. Of course, that’s been the case since there’s been a United States Congress, and especially so in the TV era. The goal of members of Congress now, though, isn’t really nailing the clip that’s going to circulate on MSNBC or Fox News. In fact, getting that sort of mainstream coverage is kinda a sign that your strategy has gone awry. Instead, you’re trying to create a stir within your own little circle of influence. Today, every member of Congress can be a star for a least a few minutes to 15 or 150 or 5,000 people.

At right around the same time that Davis was testifying, the Pew Research Center came out with a fascinating little report that gives us a valuable and data-backed look at the landscape against which the hearing played out. Pew examined how members of Congress used Twitter and Facebook during the 2016 election cycle, and then again in 2020. For one thing, the sheer volume of content posted by Congress increased significantly. In 2016, members posted about 207,000 times across Twitter and Facebook. In 2020, it was up to 315,000. To drill in a bit further, Congress spent the four years between the two contests criticizing Facebook, and then responded by posting 35,000 more times on that very platform.

Why? Just four years after the 2016 election, Pew found, American lawmakers “received orders of magnitude more engagement” — likes, retweets, reshares — “from other social media users.” Members of Congress are spending more time on social because it’s more rewarding than it’s ever been: “Lawmakers on Twitter received more than 16 times as many favorites and nearly seven times as many retweets during the 2020 election study period as in 2016.” For members of Congress, social media’s return on investment is huge, improving, and unaffected by their attempts to rein in the platforms.

Other key findings from the Pew Report:

  • Linking out’s declining. Lawmakers of both parties shared fewer links on Twitter in 2020 — 13% less than in 2016. Who cares? One best-case use of social media is expanding public conversations by pulling in ideas from other sources, making use of the Internet’s bounty. Lawmakers are (like the rest of us, frankly) increasingly using it to pontificate. And the data suggests that’s especially true on the right: link use by Republicans dropped from 36% to 22% over the four years.

  • The two parties are pulling from separate information ecosystems. When Democrats and Republicans do make use of links, the overlap between the sources they’re tapping is considerably smaller than it once was — down 32% since the last election. There is quite literally a shrinking of the shared basis of knowledge between partisans.

  • Democrats and Republicans have their own dictionaries. Each party has words the other rarely uses. Democrats’ distinctive language includes phrases like “equality,” “vote,” and “Mitch McConnell,” while go-to language among Republicans includes phrases like “bless,” “defund,” and “brave men.”

  • And there are a handful of select terms that do big business. Certain phrases boost engagement hugely, which helps explain why we see them so often. For example, mentioning “Steve Bannon” on the left in 2016 and “Hunter Biden” on the right in 2020 produced an uptick against the average of engagement by about 270%.

It’s difficult to really make sense of the modern United States Congress without understanding the role that social media is playing there — exactly what it rewards, exactly what it punishes, and how those incentives are changing month to month, year to year, election to election. Because you can be sure those sorts of conversations are happening on the Hill.

The full Pew report is here.


Reading around

Nigeria Lifts Twitter Ban With Limits After Four-Month Sanction

Helen Nyambura, Bloomberg

Big news out of west Africa, though with a pretty big caveat:

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari ordered a ban on Twitter be lifted on condition that the social-media platform is used for “business and positive engagements.”

Buhari’s administration blocked access to Twitter’s services in Africa’s most populous country on June 5, after the company deleted one of his tweets for violating its rules.”

How Miami Seduced Silicon Valley

New York Magazine, Benjamin Wallace

If we’ve really hit the work-from-anywhere era, local politicians will increasingly try to make “anywhere” where they are:

Silicon Valley’s favorite politician, Miami mayor Francis Suarez, has many lures to dangle when he’s wooing techies to relocate to his city. There’s the old sugar: low taxes and the Florida sun. As I sat across from him in his office at city hall on a recent afternoon, Suarez was telling a Zoom grid of fellow mayors that the view behind him — a vista of swaying palms, rocking boats, and gleaming water — was “not a virtual background.” The traditional charms have only been amplified in the COVID era: If you can work from anywhere, why not go where you can afford a better house for less, where you can be outside 365 days a year, where your favorite restaurants are opening outposts, where you don’t feel judged for your hustle?

How a Secret Google Geofence Warrant Helped Catch the Capitol Riot Mob

Mark Harris, Wired

Location tech has helped ID participants in the January 6th mess — a satisfying outcome for many that also raises worries about the privacy of all of us:

A geofence warrant initially seeks an anonymized list of devices tracked within a specific area at a specific time. Investigators then use that list to focus on tracks that look suspicious, and can ask Google to widen the time or geofence boundaries on only those devices. Finally, investigators can go back to Google to unmask the real name, email, phone number, and other information of just a few account holders. Courts can and have—albeit very rarely—denied geofence warrant requests that are overly broad.

But where a typical geofence fishing expedition might catch only one or two suspects, the January 6 investigation appears to have landed a netful.

LinkedIn blocks U.S. journalists' profiles in China

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, Axios

One bit buried here: it’s not clear exactly what the journalists posted to get blocked:

LinkedIn blocked the profiles of several U.S. journalists from the company's China-based platform this week, citing "prohibited content." My account was one of the profiles affected… "We’re a global platform that respects the laws that apply to us, including adhering to Chinese government regulations for our localized version of LinkedIn in China," LinkedIn told Axios in a statement.