Tweeting to the Target: Candidates Use of Strategic Messages and @Mentions on Twitter

Jeff Hemsley
Thursday, April 14, 2016 - 3:40pm
2019 Morrill Hall
Event Type: 


Jeff’s talk will focus on recent work examining the use of Twitter by political campaigns. Politicians use a variety of communication platforms in the service of winning the elections and in recent years have turned to Twitter. Twitter is an important platform for politicians because its users skew towards those who disproportionately have agenda setting power, such as political elites and journalists. In 2014, 36 of the 50 states in the U.S. held gubernatorial elections. All but 2 of the 66 candidates running for office were active on Twitter, posting 35,639 tweets in the weeks leading up to the election. This paper focuses on politicians’ use of the @mention, one of Twitter’s interactive affordances. Through systematic content analysis, machine learning, and quantitative analysis, we detail how their messaging strategies differ when mentioning themselves vs. their competitors, and between incumbents and challengers. We provide empirical evidence that candidates’ strategies are similar to TV, websites and blogs, but show that campaigns use subtle the @mention feature as an audience targeting mechanism. Our findings extend political communication theory by showing that candidates engage in a kind of controlled interactivity, wherein they use digital affordances of Twitter to create a simulacrum of interaction with the public while actually carefully controlling campaign messages.


Jeff Hemsley is an Assistant Professor at the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Washington’s Information School. His research is about understanding information diffusion and user interaction in social media. He draws on theories from sociology and communication to frame his thinking and research questions, but uses computational methods to collect, wrangle, visualize and analyze large, heterogeneous datasets.

Exploratory data analysis, inferential statistics, social network analysis and content analysis are methods he uses to answer his questions. He is co-author of the book Going Viral (Polity Press, 2013 and winner of ASIS&T Best Science Books of 2014 Information award and selected by Choice magazine as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2014), which explains what virality is, how it works technologically and socially, and draws out the implications of this process for social change. He is a founding member of the Behavior, Information, Technology and Society Laboratory (BITS lab) here at the Syracuse iSchool.

Funded by LAS Signature Research Initiative

Faculty Host:  Wallapak Tavanapong

Colloquia Lecture Jeff Hemsley.pdf