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Melissa Merry 80x108As with many other aspects of contemporary life, social media has become an important part of politics with elected officials and interest groups using sites like Twitter and Facebook to connect with citizens. But can these groups use social media to frame public policy issues? In new research examining over 10,000 tweets from pro and anti-gun organizations, Melissa Merry finds that interest groups can and do use social media to create policy narratives and to shift public debate, and that its use has distinct advantages over more traditional forms of messaging.

Social media are an increasingly important part of modern life, both in popular culture and in politics.  President Obama, for instance, is the fourth most popular user on Twitter, right behind  the singer-songwriter Taylor Swift.  Elected officials, political candidates, news organizations, and interest groups actively post to social media websites.  We know that such websites can serve a number of purposes:  building coalitions, fundraising, encouraging citizens to become active in politics.  But can these sites be effective vehicles to frame public policy issues?

Framing refers to the way issues are interpreted and characterized through language.  Social scientists have long noted that framing is important in politics, shaping public understanding of the nature of problems and steering policy debates toward particular solutions.  For example, in framing the problem of gun violence, one could focus on mental health or terrorism, or one could assert that the problem is governmental attempts to infringe on the rights of gun owners.

A common method of framing policy issues is by constructing narratives, or stories containing a setting, characters, a plot, and a resolution.  Policy narratives are easily identifiable in a wide range of communications, from press releases to emails.  But what about social media?  Twitter, in particular, represents an interesting case, given that the site limits posts to 140 characters.  Can anyone really tell a story in the space of a tweet?

To understand the potential of social media for framing issues, I examined two leading interest groups on opposite sides of the gun policy debate:  the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the National Rifle Association (NRA).  Gun policy is an ideal case study because it represents one of the most contentious, longest standing debates in American politics.  Organizations on both sides of the issue invest heavily in public outreach to build support for their causes.  We can, thus, assume that framing in forums widely used by the public—such as social media—is especially important for advocates of gun control and gun rights.

For each organization, I collected all tweets posted from July of 2009—when the groups started using Twitter—to May 2014.  During this time frame, the Brady Campaign issued more than 5400 tweets, while the NRA issued approximately 4500 tweets, for a combined total of nearly 10,000 tweets.

Next, I read each tweet and identified whether it contained specific elements of a narrative.  For instance, did the tweet contain a hero?  A villain?  Did the tweet mention victims of gun violence? Did it offer a resolution in the form of a policy proposal?  Finally, I added up the total number of narrative elements per tweet and examined trends over time in the groups’ narrative use.

To gauge whether the groups used Twitter to create narratives, I calculated the percentage of tweets meeting the minimum threshold for a narrative (i.e., one character and a policy solution).  Based on this criterion, about 18 percent of the tweets contained narratives.  This percentage may not seem high, but it actually exceeded other common uses of social media.  For example, the Brady Campaign made requests for political action or donations in 14.7 percent of its tweets, while the NRA made such appeals in 6.7 percent of its tweets.

I also examined the stream of tweets over time.  This makes sense given that most Twitter users don’t just visit the site once; they keep reading on their smartphone or computer, and they read multiple tweets in succession rather than single tweets.  Over a week’s worth of tweets, the Brady Campaign used (on average) more than 5 narrative elements, while the NRA used more than 4 elements.

Consider the week following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012.  On the day of the shooting, the Brady Campaign tweeted, “…Truly heartbreaking to hear a 3rd-grader describe mass shooting @ her school. We Are Better Than This.”  Two days later, the group tweeted, “…POTUS to support Dianne Feinstein’s legislation on Assault Weapons Ban – great news – badge of courage.”

The NRA waited several days after the shooting before responding on Dec. 21: “When it comes to our most beloved and vulnerable members of the American family, our children, we as a society leave them utterly defenseless.”  That same day, the NRA tweeted, “Poll: 53% agree with #NRA plan to increase police presence at schools…”  In short, through the accumulation of the tweets, competing stories emerged about the shooting and its implications for public policy.

As we can see from Figure 1 below, the prominence of narratives was greater at certain moments than others.  The high point in the Brady Campaign’s use of narrative elements occurred in April of 2012 as the group lobbied against two Senate bills expanding the rights of concealed weapon permit holders.  Another significant increase reflected the group’s response to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Figure 1 – Time Distribution of Narratives in Gun Policy Organizations’ Tweets, Using a 30-Day Moving Average

Merry Fig 1

The NRA was less responsive to events, but did increase the use of narrative elements following the Sandy Hook shooting, particularly as the group lobbied against proposals to ban assault weapons and expand background checks on gun sales.

In short, it’s pretty clear that the two groups used Twitter to create policy narratives and that social media was one facet of their broader efforts to shape the policy debate.  What’s the advantage of social media or other forums?  It may have something to do with groups’ ability to control their messaging.  They can choose what they want to emphasize and when they want to emphasize it, unlike press interviews in which they might be asked to respond to particular events, such as mass shootings.

As social media continue to grow as venues for political discussion, sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are likely to become even more important to interest groups, elected officials, and anyone else seeking to build their political power.

This article is based on the paper, ‘Constructing Policy Narratives in 140 Characters or Less: The Case of Gun Policy Organizations’, in Policy Studies Journal.

Featured image credit: DJ Lein (Flickr, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0)

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Melissa Merry 80x108Melissa K. MerryUniversity of Louisville
Melissa K. Merry is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. Her research interests include environmental and social policy, interest groups, information technology, and the role of framing in the policy process.  She is the author of Framing Environmental Disaster:  Environmental Advocacy and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.  Her work has also appeared in journals including American Politics Research, Environmental Politics, Journal of Information Technology and Politics, and the Policy Studies Journal.

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