In April 2019, the China Data Lab started the “Congress Tweets” project. Since then, we have utilized Twitter’s API to gather 831,331 tweets, including 10,938 tweets related to China, authored by members of Congress from Jan. 1, 2019 to Dec. 31, 2020. 1
In the coming weeks, we will release a four-part series of blogs exploring how members of Congress tweet about China.
Lei Guang, Harris Doshay, Zeyu Li, Bailey Marsheck, Molly Roberts, and Young Yang
More and more U.S. politicians have embraced social media as a key communication channel in recent years. They use social media to engage constituencies, express opinions, and even to announce their legislative intentions 2 The 2008 Obama campaign sharply increased the use of social media, starting a trend that has continued to the present day. In 2016, Trump’s uninhibited tweeting behavior catapulted Twitter into one of the primary platforms for public discussion of policies and public opinion. The Congressional Research Service reports that, as of 2018, nearly all the members of Congress (MOC) have a Twitter account. Of the 535 members of the 116th Congress in 2019-2021, a period we cover in this blog series, only three members did not.
The interactive map on the left below shows the distribution of China-related tweets by State (for Senate) and by Congressional District (for the House) in 2019 and 2020. The boxplot on the right shows the 'outlier' politicians who sent the most tweets about China. Each dot represents a top tweeting politician and reveals their tweet count on China. You can click the dot to sample their China-related message from their twitter feed.
Arthur Vanderberg once famously asserted that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” We ask the question: does politicians’ tweeting stop at the water’s edge?
How much do U.S. politicians tweet about foreign policy, and how much do they concern themselves with China, America’s preeminent strategic competitor? How polarized are China-related tweets, or do Democrats and Republicans have similar patterns of tweeting about China?
We first take data to the question who in the U.S. Congress tweets about China. It leads us to the following three takeaways:
In general, Democratic members use Twitter more than Republicans. 3 When it comes to China, however, the opposite is true. A higher proportion of Republicans than Democrats tweet about China (Figure 1). In 2019, 75% of Republicans tweeted about China, in comparison to 71% of Democrats. The Republican-Democratic divergence became greater in 2020 when a full 90% of Republicans tweeted about China, in comparison to 71% of Democrats.
Not only do more Republicans than Democrats tweet about China, but Republicans also fire off more tweets about China than Democrats on a per capita basis. On average, Republican members of Congress send almost four times as many tweets about China per capita as Democratic members (Figure 2).
The loudest voices discussing China are almost all Republicans. The top ten tweeters about China in our dataset are all Republicans. Those whom we call “super-tweeters,” or people who tweet at least 40 times about China in our dataset, are predominantly Republican members.
As we will discuss in later posts, Republicans tend to highlight very different issues about China from their Democratic counterparts, perhaps pointing to a distinct partisan slant in the online discourse regarding China.
Members of Congress tweet about foreign countries infrequently. Only a very small minority of tweets contain the name of a foreign country. Republican members send proportionally more tweets (11.6% of the total by Republicans) containing the name of a foreign country than Democrats (6.2% of the total tweets by Democrats).
China is by far the top country featured in ‘foreign affairs’ tweets by Members of Congress. In 2019 and 2020, there were as many tweets about China as there were about the next most-tweeted countries, Mexico and Russia, combined (Figure 4a). However, when we separate this out by party, we find that the pattern is driven by Republicans, not Democrats. Over a quarter (25.2%) of the 'foreign affairs' tweets by Republicans concerned China, while the corresponding number was only 7.2% for Democrats (Figure 4b, toggle on the right). In fact, Democrats were more likely to tweet about Mexico (12.3%) and Russia (9.9%) than about China (7.2%).
Again, this finding further cements that there is some partisan disagreement on the most critical countries the U.S. should focus on, with Republicans firmly focused on China and Democrats taking a greater eye to Russia as a competitor. Of course, given discourse by both parties regarding election interference in the 2016 and 2020 elections, this may reflect domestic priorities as much as foreign policy ones.
Compared to 2016, a typical member of Congress now “tweets nearly twice as often, has nearly three times as many followers and receives more than six times as many retweets on their average post,” according to a recent analysis by the Pew Research Center. There is no question that the total tweet count by members of Congress has soared in the past five years.
However, only a very small fraction of these tweets, about 1.3%, has to do with China. Out of a total of 831,221 tweets we examined, only 10,938 of them discussed China. A fraction of the members — about sixty — have tweeted forty or more times about China during this period.
In fact, a paradoxical finding is that Congressional members with a high interest in and perhaps expertise on China tend to tweet less about the country. For example, we analyzed the tweets by members of the “ China Working Group ” (CWG) in Congress and found that the proportion of China-related tweets by the CWG members is a paltry 0.77%, well below the corresponding proportion of 1.26% for the non-CWG members.
In summary, members of Congress don’t tweet much about China overall, members of the China Working Group do so even less , and only a small minority tweeted forty times or more about China in our two-year period. Still, compared to other countries, China represents a far more consistently discussed topic on Twitter, especially among the Republicans. Among those who do tweet about China, Republicans tweet far more than Democrats, a trend that is in part driven by a very small minority who tweet extensively about China.
What, then, do they discuss? How has this discussion changed over time? How does their discussion of China map onto the ideological cleavages in the U.S.?
Stay tuned for the next installment of the blog about the Congress, tweeting, and China.
Lei Guang, So Family Executive Director, 21st Century China Center, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy
Harris Doshay, Assistant Director of Research and Writing, 21st Century China Center, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy
Zeyu Li, Master of Chinese Economics and Political Affairs (MCEPA) candidate, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy
Bailey Marsheck, Chinese Language Fellow for the National Bureau of Asian Research, Tsinghua University's IUP Program; holds a bachelor's degree from UC San Diego and a master’s degree from Peking University
Molly Roberts, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science and the Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute, UC San Diego; Co-Director, China Data Lab at the 21st Century China Center, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy
Young Yang, Research Data Analyst, China Data Lab at the 21st Century China Center, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy