WASHINGTON—Eight of every 10 members of Congress are on Facebook and Twitter, but social media experts say lawmakers should be more interactive in using online communication tools to reach out to young people, one of their most elusive constituent groups.
People ages 18 to 29 -- the so-called millennials -- practically live online. Yet simply adopting the latest technology isn't enough to bring them into the political world of Congress, according to the experts and leaders of youth-based political groups. Lawmakers instead should be using social media to actively engage that 18-29 crowd instead of as another one-way communication tool to tout their latest talking points.
"Social media has gone from a publishing platform to a really interactive space," says Andrew Foxwell, manager of marketing and new media at iConstituent, a firm assisting congressional offices with constituent outreach. "You have to interact. That's the added value of social media."
Foxwell advises lawmakers to respond to millennials' comments on Facebook and to their tweets, the 140-character-or-less messages sent to those who follow Twitter accounts.
It can be a significant audience. Three-quarters of Americans 18 to 29 use social media, and one-third go online to connect with government officials, according to a survey by The Pew Internet and American Life Project.
In Congress, 433 members of the House and Senate, or 81 percent, use Twitter, a recent survey of members found. Eighty-three percent, or 441 members, use Facebook.
When it comes to tweeting, Republicans have an edge over Democrats in both chambers.
In the House, 86 percent of Republicans tweet compared with 75 percent of Democrats. Forty-one of the 47 Republicans in the Senate tweet, as do 41 of the 51 Senate Democrats and both independents.
Youth advocacy group leaders urge lawmakers to use social media for more than dry policy statements and talking points.
"We want to know how you're feeling," says Angela Peoples of Campus Progress, who advises members of Congress to be "genuine" in their social media usage. "If you're frustrated with the process, share that with your social media tools."
Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, also pushes for authenticity. "Have a real conversation. Talk about the issues and engage them in authentic ways," she says. "Be yourself, use the technology and people will write back."
For Emily Bartone, an 18-year-old student at George Mason University in suburban Washington, personalizing the message is key to connecting.
"I want it to be something that's going to be valid to me as an 18-year-old, as a new voter," Bartone says. "They can talk and talk and talk about whatever their agenda is, but if they don't personalize it to their viewers and their audience, then they're not going to get anywhere with it."
Social media should be a catalyst for political dialogue, Foxwell says.
"It's what I call a 360-degree conversation," he says. "The ultimate you could have is that somebody gets an email or e-newsletter from their representative. Then, they start following that representative on Facebook or Twitter, they ask a question and the representative responds back. Then you're having a real experience, with a person."
Like other media, it can be misused. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., was forced to resign in June after sending sexually explicit messages and photos to women who were following him on Twitter.
The 2008 presidential election showed tangible benefits for a candidate who could engage young voters via social media. According to The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 51 percent of eligible voters ages 18-29 cast ballots, up 2 percentage points from 2004, and most voted for Barack Obama, whose campaign used social media extensively.
Three years later, some millennials say lawmakers who have yet to become social media-savvy are missing an opportunity to connect with their generation.
"We're a very underappreciated group of voters, but the thing is, when we're passionate, we're a very powerful group of voters," Bartone said. "When you're not using social media to contact us, to really get to us, you're really . neglecting an entire group of voters that could really do well for you."
Sarah Richard, a 22-year-old graduate student at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said members of Congress who aren't using social media well are viewed as minor players, if not insignificant.
"If you're looking for the youth vote for any election coming up, you need to have social media on your side," Richard says.
Experts say lawmakers should develop specific strategies for targeting young people. Peter Levine, the director of The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, says lawmakers should hire millennials from their own congressional district or state to contribute their own content as a way to connect with others like them.
"If a staffer is writing the tweets for a member of Congress, say so," Levine says.
He also suggests that lawmakers or their representatives invite comments and responses and then reply to them to make the conversation interactive.
Lack of a social media presence is a sign of being out of touch, says Matthew Segal, 25, the co-founder and president of Our Time, an organization created to bolster the voice of young Americans. The more out of touch the lawmakers seem, he says, the more millennials feel removed from the political process.
"Members of Congress have an obligation to stay on top of new emerging trends and culture because they represent the American people," Segal says, "and that's what the American people are using and consuming every single day."
Editor's Note: This story was reported for The Associated Press by students at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.