November 2008: Barack Obama is elected president after making revolutionary use of the Web and social media to connect with voters and organize a grassroots movement. Fast forward two years to this past November: Twitter hires Adam Sharp to be the company’s representative in DC and work with members of Congress and the Executive Branch to help “use Twitter as a vehicle for constituents.”
Twitter’s decision signifies social media’s new place as a political powerhouse. More than 70 percent of Congress is active on Twitter and, in the wake of Obama’s success, it is especially important for campaigns to mesh digital strategies with traditional stump tactics. (Both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich recently promoted their 2012 candidacy announcements via Twitter).
Why? Twitter gives lawmakers an online soapbox – an opportunity to promote their agendas and connect directly with their voters. In fact, a recent Pew study found that 13 percent of online adults now use Twitter, with key demographics like African Americans and Latinos having particularly high rates of adoption.
Now that smartphones and tablets are allowed on the House floor, voters could hypothetically have near non-stop access to their elected officials – even during the State of the Union address. While Twitter gives lawmakers an unparalleled opportunity to speak directly to voters, the immediacy of the platform has made politicians vulnerable to unwanted criticisms. From Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) highly publicized interactions with MTV reality star Snooki and Sen. Claire McCaskill’s (D-Mo.) tweets about “feeling fat,” to former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s inexplicable Twitter video with an oversized knife and Sarah Palin’s infamous “refudiate” tweet, politicians’ humanity is on display in 140 characters.
In addition to high-profile successes like Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s brilliant use of Twitter during a blizzard, politicians have also had their fair share of gaffes on the platform. Former Rep. Peter Hoekstra (D-Mich.) tweeted “Just landed in Baghdad” during a top secret trip as part of the House Intelligence Committee. Former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) was forced to issue an apology for a profane tweet published on his account. And most recently, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D- N.Y.) mistakenly tweeted a sexually suggestive photograph, unraveling a history of secret online exchanges.
In what I assume are precautionary measures, Congressional tweeting has decreased almost 30 percent in the wake of “Weinergate.” Yes, social platforms bring new possibilities for public missteps, but a mass exodus of public figures from Twitter would be a disservice to lawmakers and their voters. One of the great benefits of social media is its ability to allow participatory, and thus more democratic, conversation between constituents and elected leaders – instead of traditional, top-down communication filled only with talking points.
Indeed, Edelman’s own Capital Staffers Index (PDF) measured “a significant rise in the perceived effectiveness of digital communication channels in enabling successful two-way communication between members and their constituents.” Notably, Congressional staffers ranked Facebook and Twitter as “roughly two times more effective” with their bosses in 2010 than in 2009, and the data saw an 11 point increase in reaching constituents through microblogging.
Social media is one of the best avenues for federal employees to connect with the people they serve. With that understanding, the General Services Administration released “The Social Media Navigator,” (PDF) which encourages leaders to engage online and explains how to do so effectively and transparently. As we’ve seen time and again, social media also enables companies, brands and politicians to quickly respond to problems. Conversations about politicians and the issues important to their constituents will occur regardless of political presence on Twitter. It is infinitely better for lawmakers to listen, engage and respond than to limit their interactions for fear of humiliation.
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