Tracking the U.S. Government’s Response to #Occupy on Twitter

It’s no exaggeration to say that Occupy Wall Street first started on Twitter. As the New York Times reported Monday, the #occupywallstreet hashtag was conceived in July, a full two months before the first tent was pitched at Zuccotti Park.

As it grew from a single camp into a movement, Twitter was essential for getting real-time updates out as events unfolded, for both supporters and local government.

Particularly in the last month, some city officials have used Twitter as a tool to keep people informed. Even as they were dismantling camps, the mayors of New York City and Portland, Oregon were posting real-time updates and responding to citizens directly.

While city officials have actively communicated their positions, the response from the federal government has been muted, at best. The Occupy movement’s concerns are much larger than city politics, with most proposed demands requiring cooperation from Washington.

So far, official statements are isolated and infrequent — an early endorsement from the president, a couple of statements from the White House press secretary, and a range of opinions from individual members of Congress.

But maybe the situation’s different online? Twitter is much more casual and conversational, and social media-savvy federal agencies often respond directly to queries and complaints from their followers. It’s possible that federal employees are addressing questions and concerns about Occupy on Twitter instead.

I decided to find out.

Data Wrangling

I originally gathered this data to build the Federal Social Media Index, a weekly report that compares federal agencies using Twitter, which I’m happy to release today as part of my work at Expert Labs.

Starting with an index of over 450 U.S. government departments and agencies, I asked the anonymous workforce at Amazon Mechanical Turk to find official Twitter accounts for each one.

Three workers researched each agency, and I approved the ones they agreed on and hand-checked the rest.

When I was done, I had a list of 126 official Twitter accounts representing a wide swath of U.S. government, from the Secret Service to the Postal Service. (Browse them all on the Federal Social Media Index or in the spreadsheet below.)

To collect all the tweets, I used ThinkUp, a free, open-source tool for archiving and analyzing social-media activity on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ that I work on at Expert Labs.

With this dataset, I could easily tell which federal agency is the most popular (NASA), the most prolific (the NEA), and the most likely to reply to you personally (the US Census Bureau).

It also makes it very easy to see who’s talking about Occupy, and who isn’t.

Occupy Silence

Since the Occupy protests started in mid-September, nearly 15,000 messages were posted by the 126 federal Twitter accounts.

Of those accounts, only three have mentioned the Occupy protests in any way — Voice of America, the Smithsonian, and the White House.

For those unfamiliar with it, VOA is a radio and television news network broadcasting in 100 countries in 59 languages, but banned from airing in the United States because of propaganda laws. As part of their daily news coverage, they’ve tweeted about Occupy nine times since the protests began. (Here’s the most recent.)

Second, the Smithsonian responded to a tweet by Complex Magazine, refuting rumors of an OWS-themed museum exhibit.

The only other mention of the Occupy protests: one tweet from the White House nearly two months ago.

Opening Up

The obvious reason for the silence is that the federal government doesn’t yet have a position on Occupy. If they haven’t issued a formal statement, blog post, or press conference, then why Tweet?

For starters, it’s a humane and natural way to open a dialogue with a generally forgiving audience. Some of these agencies have tens or hundreds of thousands of people who care about what they have to say, or they wouldn’t be following them.

Proactively talking about potentially challenging issues like Occupy is an opportunity to bring some humanity to government, and maybe even help shape policy.

(Note: This was originally published in my column in WIRED.)

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