New Research: Dickinson College Political Scientist Examines the Instagram Habits of Congress

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Instagram signals an important future change in the way younger members of Congress use social media to represent themselves.

Example of a text post targeted to younger constituents from the Instagram account of Rep. Hakeem Jeffries

"Instagram’s impact on American politics is only just now beginning to be felt," David O'Connell, assistant professor of political science, Dickinson College.

New research suggests members of Congress sharing posts on Instagram signals an important future change in the way younger members of Congress use social media to represent themselves. The paper, “#Selfie: Instagram and the United States Congress,” by David O’Connell, assistant professor of political science at Dickinson College, was published in the fall/winter issue of the academic journal Social Media + Society.

O’Connell examined nearly 18,000 Instagram posts from senators and representatives during the first six months of the 115th Congress (Jan.-June, 2017). Among his key findings, O’Connell found that Instagram posts are influenced by three main drivers: chamber, party and age. “Younger members are far more comfortable allowing their followers an authentic glimpse into who they are outside of work,” he said. His research shows younger members post greater percentages of personal photos, photos at home, family photos, selfies, videos and pictures with their pets.

While members of Congress overall take a “businesslike” approach to social media, O’Connell finds differences in how Republicans and Democrats use Instagram. He writes this difference “may have more to do with the balance of power than with party membership,” as the GOP enjoyed control of both chambers during the 115th Congress. For example, Republicans were more likely to share professional posts in D.C. featuring other government officials. Democrats, in contrast, used their Instagram accounts much more for position-taking, sharing higher percentages of posts with text.

Additionally, O’Connell found senators were more likely than representatives to be using Instagram, and women in Congress were more likely to have an account than men, data that matches Instagram’s demographic trends. O’Connell believes additional research on politicians’ social media accounts will be necessary. “Instagram’s impact on American politics is only just now beginning to be felt,” he said, adding, “How a member uses Instagram can be thought of as part of the way they present themselves to their constituents… In the past, members could only accomplish these ends in person.”

Download the paper. For interview requests, contact Prof. O’Connell directly at oconneld@dickinson.edu or contact Dickinson media relations (Christine Baksi, baksic@dickinson.edu; Craig Layne, laynec@dickinson.edu).

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