Media Watch: Social media’s political influence


April Forristall, assistant editor

Published on
July 16, 2012

It wasn’t 10 years ago that social media was just a buzz word, MySpace was the No. 1 social-networking site and Facebook was limited to college students. But these days social media is an influential tool in U.S. politics, and now even seafood is involved.

There’s a catfish fight on Capitol Hill that’s been dragging on for years. Last year, U.S. Sens. John McCain and John Coburn rekindled the debate when they introduced legislation that would rescind a measure transferring regulation of domestic and imported catfish from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

And where the battle is being fought may surprise you.

It started when Sen. McCain focused a Twitter campaign on government waste and called the new USDA Catfish Inspection Program the No. 1 most wasteful government project. 

Now the author of a House bill that would also eliminate the program is using social media to further her cause. Rep. Vicky Hartzler of Missouri has been “tweeting” extensively about the need to scrap the program. She also ran a Facebook poll on the issue, shared an info graphic on her Facebook page and consistently updated her followers on the progress being made.

And she’s not alone. Rep. Mike McIntyre of North Carolina and Rep. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana are also using their Twitter accounts to push the issue. But who are they trying to reach, and is it working?

“Social media has become a tool for political and policy change, and the congressional offices that have been working to kill this wasteful catfish inspection program have been out front in using it to communicate and generate support,” said Gavin Gibbons, director of media relations for the National Fisheries Institute.

“Social media as a tool to update constituents is more and more common,” he explained. “Initially, we’ve seen social media being used to update constituents. But in politics, often times education leads to action. So having an educated constituency translates to a more active constituency.”

Political use of social media is still in its infancy. But it’s already evolved from a way to inform voters to a tool to influence fellow politicians.

“Harnessing social media for political use is a relatively new strategy, but it won’t be long before those who aren’t using it are considered dinosaurs,” said Gibbons.

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