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Congress Is All Atwitter

Correction Appended

Since the microblogging Web site Twitter launched in 2006, tens of millions of people have logged on and churned out billions of 140-character messages called tweets. And Congress has certainly embraced the trend. In fact, by early last year, some 20 Members were using the site, according to Tweet Congress, which monitors Members’ Twitter use. The current count, the group says, is 162 (plus 16 committees and seven caucuses).

But computer-savvy political junkies already know that. Whether politicians are using Twitter to its full potential is another matter entirely.

“Twitter is wonderful and it allows you to blast information out very quickly,— said Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), one of the networking tool’s early adopters. “Finally, America is achieving real-time democracy in a way that Mr. Jefferson would have loved.—

At its best, Twitter is a transparent forum for an unmediated exchange of ideas and ideals, and at its worst, a mouthpiece for narcissistic frivolities. It can be used for one-to-one, one-to-many or many-to-one information sharing. And in Congress, tweets run the gamut. Political birdwatchers can, on any given day, witness Members fielding constituents’ questions or simply blasting one-way public relations hits.

“Media in general can be used for engagement or to be boring,— said Dan Gillmor, digital media professor at Arizona State University. “For some [Members], there’s a general desire to connect with constituents and others with social conversational media. I’m sure that for some, it’s a completely cynical marketing exercise.—

Congressional Twitter Caucus

Republican Members outnumber Democrats 2 to 1 on Twitter, according to Tweet Congress. By last count, including committees and caucuses, 123 Republicans tweet compared with 61 Democrats and one Independent — Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.). Those figures are broken down further in a new report called Twongress, released this month by blogger and public relations executive Mark Senak. Senak found that, as of the beginning of January, only 132 Members actively used their accounts: 89 Republicans and 43 Democrats.

In the Senate, that includes 14 Republicans and 11 Democrats. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is the most popular user in Congress with almost 1.6 million followers. The next-most-followed Member is Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) with about 35,000, then Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) with more than 28,000. McCain’s numbers almost certainly have to do with his presidential run, Senak wrote. President Barack Obama, after all, has more than 3 million followers.

In the House, the numbers are more one-sided. Active GOP Representatives outnumber Democrats 75 to 32. Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) leads the pack with almost 19,000 followers, and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) trails him with about 17,000. In fact, only one Democrat is in the top 10 on the House list — Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio). Just two are in the top 20. The other is Rep. Neil Abercrombie (Hawaii).

Strategy Vs. Personality

Establishing a robust Twitter feed is a matter of digital philosophy, and there seem to be two divergent paths. On one side, a top-down social media strategy translates to an aggressive House Republican presence, say GOP operatives. On the other side are Members like McCaskill who strive for a more idiosyncratic approach.

Boehner and Cantor have in-house directors of new media. Nick Schaper, Boehner’s new media guru, said they internally distribute an updated list of Members’ Twitter accounts and use an e-mail group operated by the Republican New Media Caucus to send re-tweet requests, or requests to copy content posted by one user and tweet it with attribution to the originator.

“When our Members were shown a new tool that’s easy to use, free to the taxpayer and provides for a direct conversation with their constituents, it wasn’t a hard sell,— he said. “The more active and conversational you are on Twitter, the faster your followers increase.—

It’s not surprising then that House Republicans have a total of nearly 300,000 followers compared with the Democrats’ 56,000. Republicans have also out-tweeted their Democratic counterparts 29,162 to 5,503. The House Democratic Caucus encourages its members to sign on to Twitter, too, but numbers show that Republicans are more adept at using the tool.

But strategy isn’t everything. McCaskill, a Twitter trendsetter, has cultivated her large following by personally managing her own account.

“It’s basically an easy way, while she’s in Washington, to connect with her constituents,— McCaskill spokeswoman Maria Speiser said. “I think that the people can tell that it’s her personally and when they’re hearing from her, she’s being candid and open and it’s not just a press release coming from a staffer.—

McCaskill has typed every one of her more than 1,300 tweets herself. She responds to constituents and is renowned for showing her personality through her correspondence.

“We’ve heard a lot from followers of McCaskill,— said Chris McCroskey, a co-founder of Tweet Congress. “It’s engaging on a personal level. They start to feel like they know her.—

Neither Boehner nor Cantor types his own tweets, said staffers. Members of the staff handle it, but Boehner or his team will vet the message before it’s sent. Cantor is often present as the tweeting is done. Both do reply to constituents, but neither achieves the level of personal engagement that McCaskill does, say observers.

Interestingly enough, though, both strategies seem to be successful. For the Twongress report, Senak used an online algorithm called Twitalyzer to gauge the effectiveness of Members’ tweets. Republicans dominate the House top 10 in categories such as influence, based on the number of tweets, followers, re-tweets and mentions in other tweets; signal, based on providing useful information rather than just noise; and clout, a measure of how much the user was cited, mentioned or re-tweeted by others. But McCaskill, with her distinctively personal approach, ranks very high in all the same metrics.

But it could be just a digital popularity contest. Take Sen.-elect Scott Brown (R-Mass.), for instance. Virtually unknown last month, he already has more than 17,000 followers and very high marks on Twitalyzer.

Still, whether any of this translates to votes in November remains to be seen.

Twelve Types of Tweets

So what is Congress saying on Twitter, anyway? Here are some typical tweets you’ll see from Congress. All tweets appear as they were written, grammar withstanding.

The One-on-One Tweet. McCaskill and Culberson are masters at this. A Member will talk back and forth with another Twitter user using the “@— symbol. Take this exchange, for instance, between Culberson and TellTheTruth1:

TellTheTruth1 wrote: PLEASE INVESTIGATE!! @johnculberson @repmaryfallin #tweetcongress #tcot #ocra #tlot #sgp #teaparty #phnm

johnculberson replied: @TellTheTruth1 I will — it looks very weird — I will analyze it carefully — no police officer in USA should ever be exempt from Constit

Another example is this exchange between McCaskill and texasmcmanus centering on Rush Limbaugh’s recent comments about the earthquake in Haiti:

clairecmc wrote: Really? Helping suffering people is about politics? Our assistance to others defines us as a nation. Shame on him.

texasmcmanus wrote: @clairecmc don’t be so condescending — media matters loves to bash Rush. You had to listen to the show to understand the context.

clairecmc replied: @texasmcmanus There is no context that can defend those sentiments.

Engagement isn’t always pleasant. But Speiser says McCaskill “welcomes the input from everyone.— Culberson adds: “I don’t mind criticism. I enjoy thoughtful, polite, spirited debate. It’s fun.—

The Press Release. The polar opposite of the one-on-one tweet is probably the most prevalent Congressional correspondence on Twitter, say observers. They’re easy to spot because they’re often in first person, truncated and in all caps. Take this from Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.):


“They’re just so easy to ignore,— said McCroskey of Tweet Congress. “If they would just personalize them just a bit I’m sure their click-throughs would go through the roof.—

Culberson agreed. “It’s predictable, uninteresting, and will probably be tuned out,— he said. “Twitter’s not about blasting out hyperlinks or ‘Watch me on TV.’ It’s about personal one-on-one communication for people we work for.—

The ‘Watch Me on TV!’ Tweet. These are pretty self-explanatory. Here’s one from Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.):

LEETERRYNE wrote: I’ll be live on KMTV (CBS) channel 5 at noon central time today to discuss current issues before Congress. Please tune in!

The Location/Activity Tweet. In addition to the tube, Members often tweet about being other places. Here’s Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.):

jaredpolis wrote: is in Cambridge for new member orientation … Dinner with friends Thurs, Dec 4th (Join us): Bombay Bistro 57 JFK Street Cambridge, MA

The Twitpic/Video Tweet. These tweets are paired with a link to a picture.

Here are two Arizona Members, McCain and Rep. Harry Mitchell (D), posting photos:

HarryEMitchell wrote: — Enjoyed meeting some of the people from Arizona Community in Schools who helped put the program together

SenJohnMcCain wrote: Great crowd in Green Valley!! #townhall

The photos or videos almost always feature the Member. Tweet Congress has compiled a portrait gallery on its Web site. “You will see some baby-kissing on the Twitpics,— McCroskey said.

The ‘You Lie!’ Tweet. This one is all the rage for the minority party. During Obama’s State of the Union address, several Members, such as Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), were busy tweeting from the floor:

zachwamp wrote: Sitting at the State of the Union listening to words like responsibilty and accountability just days after a reckless spending spree

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) wrote after the speech:

JeffFlake wrote: Pres Obama assured us tonight that he ‘doesn’t believe in big government.’ Dang, that’s a relief!

The Cheerleader Tweet. Then there’s the ideological counterpart, perfected by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.):

repblumenauer wrote: Wow! As it settles in, I can only say: he hit it out of the park! Just what Congress and American people need to hear! Yes we can!

The TCOT Tweet. A popular Twitter meme used by Members and citizens alike is tcot, which stands for “top conservatives on Twitter,— or some variation. Twitterers tag it onto the end of tweets with a hashtag (#) so people can search for tcot and see a stream of all the recent conservative tweets. Here’s Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.):

PeterRoskam wrote: Just left bi-partisan classified briefing on Christmas Day terror attempt. I remain convinced WH #Gitmo strategy is wrong.#tcot

The Irrelevent Personal Aside Tweet. Some Members occasionally use their accounts for a personal comment or two. Here’s one from Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.):

jahimes wrote: Saw Pirate Radio tonight. Great cast, whole lotta fun. Definitely recommend it if you’re a Rock & Roll fan. Or a sailor.

And another from Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), following his car accident from which gossip Web site TMZ claimed his abs emerged unscathed:

repaaronschock wrote: Glad tmz is reporting on a car accident that doesn’t involve fire hydrants or golf clubs and I’m glad no one was hurt

The (Insert State) Sports Rule! Tweet. Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter on Twitter:

DavidVitter wrote: Did someone say Deuuuuuuuuuuuce? #26 Deuce McAllister rejoins the Saints in time for the playoff run.

The Shout-Out Tweet. This will often be a “what up— to the military. Here’s Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.):

tomperriello wrote: just left departure ceremony for VA Natl Guard’s 1st Battalion in L’burg. Humbled, grateful for their service & sacrifice of their families

But sometimes not. Here’s Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.):

Rep_Giffords wrote: Welcome Rep. Randy Forbes into the Congressional Motorcycle Caucus!

The News Link Tweet. These are also very common. Here are two from Boehner and Sanders:

johnboehner wrote: Charles Krauthammer asks, “Why is Obama obsessed with Guantanamo?—

senatorsanders wrote: NY Times’ DealBook on the so-called “TARP Tax— —

Correction: Jan. 25, 2010

The article incorrectly stated that Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) tweeted during President Barack Obama’s 2009 State of the Union address. The tweet was sent at 8:08 p.m. Mountain Standard Time, not Eastern, after the speech ended.

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