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Twitter Accounts Followed by Congressional Health Staff

David Grande, MD, MPA; Zachary F. Meisel, MD, MS; Raina M. Merchant, MD, MS; Jane Seymour, MPH; and Sarah E. Gollust, PhD
Disseminating timely and relevant research findings to policy makers is a national priority to inform health policy decisions. Social media is a novel tool to bridge the communication gap.
Our study has several important implications. First, although policy makers’ staff were common users of social media, they did not appear to be using the technology in a way that directly connected researchers and policy makers. This suggests that academic researchers and institutions should not overlook traditional news media targets in their social media dissemination strategies. These findings may also point to the need for researchers and academic institutions to build relationships with trusted information intermediaries (eg, advocacy organizations/think tanks) that could curate new research findings and deliver information through social media that is timely and salient to policy makers. Second, although the pathways may be similar to traditional channels, the nature or influence of the information communicated may nonetheless be different. Future research should examine how the information communicated through social media differs from that provided by traditional news sources (eg, newspapers), and whether it produces alterations in terms of influence. News outlets increasingly have health-focused Twitter feeds that are narrow in focus. Future research should also examine how the information-seeking habits of various types of policy staff differ. For example, staff in Senate member offices, on Congressional committees, or in executive branch agencies have more specialized roles than staff in House member offices. Therefore, they may rely on different sources through social media.

Limitations

Our study has several limitations. First, we obtained a list of health-related Congressional staff from a company that gathers this information and sells it to third parties. We were not able to validate that the database included all health-related Congressional staff or if those identified were actively working on health policy in a Congressional office. We also could not verify that the individuals used Twitter for work-related purposes. By restricting the search to accounts followed by 3 or more staff, we identified accounts that were more likely to be related to their professional roles. In addition, we were unable to extract the Twitter accounts followed by Congressional staff if their own account was private (n = 69). Another possibility is that some staff maintain 2 Twitter accounts—a private account (or public account with a pseudonym) for work-related use and a public account for personal use. If this were the case, our analysis may be missing some Twitter accounts followed by 3 or more staff. Given these limitations, our sample is unlikely to be representative of all health policy staff in the Congress, and may be missing some Twitter accounts followed by staff.

Second, we coded each Twitter account using the bio within the Twitter account. In some cases, the bio provided limited information and thus, there may be some misclassification of Twitter accounts that could not be classified within our coding scheme. Third, we did not attempt to characterize the content of information being communicated on Twitter or the relative contributions of different accounts. Fourth, Twitter users sometimes followed “lists” of Twitter accounts followed by others. This allowed a user to follow another user’s list of curated accounts, which could have been either public or private. Our analysis did not account for this. Finally, our study focused on Twitter and our results were only generalizable to this social media platform.

CONCLUSIONS

Improving the translation and dissemination of health policy and health service research is essential to achieving evidence-influenced policy making. Social media represents a highly touted opportunity to communicate research evidence. However, it does not appear to circumvent the traditional news media as an important intermediary that provides information to policy makers.28 As academic researchers and institutions use social media to disseminate research, our findings suggest that they should focus their communication strategies on news media targets if the goal is to reach networks policy makers already use. 

Acknowledgments

The authors thank Maarten Sap for his technical assistance on this project. This study was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars Program at the University of Pennsylvania. The funder had no role in the study design; collection, analysis and interpretation of data; writing of the manuscript; and the decision to submit the article for publication.

Author Affiliations: Division of General Internal Medicine (DG), Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics (DG, ZFM, RMM), and Department of Emergency Medicine (ZFM, RMM), University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA; School of Public Health, Boston University (JS), (Boston, MA); School of Public Health, University of Minnesota (SEG), (Minneapolis, MN).

Source of Funding: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Author Disclosures: The authors report no relationship or financial interest with any entity that would pose a conflict of interest with the subject matter of this article.

Authorship Information: Concept and design (DG, ZFM, RMM, SEG); acquisition of data (DG, ZFM, RMM); analysis and interpretation of data (DG, ZFM, RMM, JS, SEG); drafting of the manuscript (DG, RMM, JS, SEG); critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content (DG, ZFM, RMM, SEG); statistical analysis (DG); obtaining funding (DG); administrative, technical, or logistic support (ZFM, JS).

Address Correspondence to: David Grande, MD, MPA, University of Pennsylvania, 3641 Locust Walk ­– 407, Philadelphia, PA 19104. E-mail: dgrande@wharton.upenn.edu. 
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