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Studying the NRA on Twitter

Our next speaker at ASMC14, Christian Christensen, takes a slightly different approach, focussing on the political role of the United States' National Rifle Association (NRA) rather than on a conventional party – and in the US, the NRA is considered to be a very powerful political organisation; it describes itself as the country's "longest-standing civil rights organisation", in fact.

The NRA in its current, rabidly pro-guns form is a product of the 1970s, and surprisingly it is not a very rich organisation – but its strength comes from its 4 million members. It rates and ranks political candidates on a scale from A to F in relation to their opposition to non-insane gun laws. The organisation runs a variety of Twitter accounts, which are largely used to cover its own conferences and to promote its statements – not really to advocate direct action and conduct grassroots lobbying.

In the context of existing categorisations of social media uses for advocacy, then, this centres on sharing information and building community, not on direct advocacy. Largely, the NRA does not retweet – it simply pushes out its own materials; it does not directly @mention any other users either. Twitter is used for fundraising, event promotion, and advertising ancillary products; where tweets target specific issues, they are attacks on policies, politicians, or other people, but do not encourage followers to take action.

Surprisingly, the target of such attacks is not President Obama, but New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, Attorney-General Eric Holder, or in fact the (supposedly pro-gun control) nominee for Surgeon-General, whose appointment has been held up for a substantial amount of time. Conversely, the NRA also tweets out endorsements of pro-gun politicians. It does not respond to new mass shootings, following a widely criticised tweet after the Aurora shooting which led to all NRA accounts to lie dormant for some time; some days after a new shooting, it tends to tweet out links to pro-gun commentary in friendly media outlets.

The NRA account engages in somewhat insular advocacy, then, sharing information and opinion. There are interesting questions about the overlap between Twitter's and the NRA's demographics here, of course – to what extent are the Twitter accounts able to address paid-up supporters, sympathisers, or critics?