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Congress sticks with Twitter instead of flocking to other social media, for now

They may be uneasy, but comms directors on the Hill are staying the course

It’s not clear what will happen to Twitter under Elon Musk, but communications professionals on Capitol Hill are sticking around to find out.
It’s not clear what will happen to Twitter under Elon Musk, but communications professionals on Capitol Hill are sticking around to find out. (Photo illustration by Chesnot/Getty Images)

When Elon Musk took over Twitter a few weeks back, the online vultures began to circle. Pundits signed up for competing platforms like Mastodon and Post, and then tweeted to ask their followers to join them. Online communities held impromptu funerals for the app as Musk laid off thousands of employees.

Its finances do appear to be a mess, not to mention its content moderation policies, but Twitter is still very much alive. Users are sticking around — including members of Congress. 

So far, congressional staffers are approaching the Tesla CEO’s takeover with cautious indifference.

“Twitter’s not going anywhere,” said one House Republican communications staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“This is another example where the media is having a field day with predictions over this,” said another GOP communications aide. “This is all overblown.”

Democratic superusers of the blue-bird site largely agree, although some are humming a slightly more cautious tune, said Aaron Fritschner, communications director and deputy chief of staff for Virginia Democratic Rep. Don Beyer.

“The Twitter situation is at a point where … many of us are starting to think about what would take its place, if it either was technically nonfunctional or if it became too problematic to stay on,” he said.

For both sides, the reason to be on Twitter is mostly the same: It’s a public salon for the Beltway set of elected officials, journalists, lobbyists and political professionals. That’s crucial if you want to gain national prominence as a thought leader or firebrand. But in the history of political discourse, how important is it really? 

Back in the 18th century, the Founding Fathers sat down to pen learned letters to their fellow elites and published essays anonymously (so their fame, or infamy, wouldn’t distract from the weight of their arguments).

Later, silver-tongue orators toured the nation delivering hourslong appeals aimed at winning the common man’s hearts as much as their minds. The invention of radio allowed Franklin D. Roosevelt to skip past the gatekeepers in print media to broadcast his populist message directly to the people. (Of course, the same technology allowed the likes of Father Coughlin to do the same.)

Twitter has played a similar role since its founding in 2006, allowing politicians to skip past traditional gatekeepers, without the considerable forethought inherent in earlier media. It gave rise to both Donald Trump and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The app’s rapid pace lends itself well to breaking news, but it also means the lies spoken there travel that much faster, and its anonymity creates bridges for trolls to lurk under.

So, Twitter is invariably described as a hell site, a time vampire and absolutely indispensable to how Washington, D.C., operates today.

“It’s hard to think about what a post-Twitter environment would look like for a political world where it has become so dependent on it,” said Fritschner.

“It’s a fundamental part of how [politicians] build a reputation,” said Annalise Russell, a professor of public policy at the University of Kentucky. “And if you take that away, the question becomes: How [do] members and their office and their staff behave … within the broader D.C. political ecosystem?”

“I wouldn’t say it’s disconcerting, but it’s an uneasy feeling, certainly, at the moment,” she added.

Exploring their options

“My last boss loved Twitter. We lived and died with the Twitter cycle,” said another House GOP communications aide. “My current one got an account just so it’s easier for him to open the tweets we send him in texts.”

That representative is so uninterested in the fame some other lawmakers seek online, the aide said, that he refuses to do TV hits outside his district’s media market. He largely eschews social media, except for Facebook.

“Facebook has given us a way to connect with our constituents in a way that Twitter or Truth Social or others don’t allow us to,” he said. “We’re certainly not going to be TikTok people.”

Other staffers echoed that sentiment, arguing that Facebook is the only social media app useful for reaching constituents, thanks to its community-based groups and its base of older users who are more likely to vote. But for some, Twitter can do that too. For Fritschner in the D.C. suburbs, “we are an unusual district where we represent a disproportionate number of people who are educated and in government,” so talking to them on Twitter actually works. 

Republicans are ahead of Democrats in thinking about what an online world without Twitter might look like. In response to the app’s penchant, pre-Musk, for banning belligerent accounts, several right-wing alternatives sprouted up: options like Parler, Gettr and Trump’s own Truth Social.

But those Twitter alternatives are for the birds, GOP staffers said.

“We got on Truth back when Devin Nunes came in to be CEO or whatever, just because he was a friend of my boss,” one GOP staffer said. “I think we have used it twice. It is certainly not a viable alternative for talking to anybody. I mean, it just doesn’t work.”

As much as Twitter is not all that useful, Truth Social, Gettr and … I can’t even remember the other one, but they are even more useless,” said another Republican aide.

The Republican staffers said the only people using the right-wing Twitter replacements are members more interested in bomb-throwing than lawmaking. For everyone else, “it’s a waste of time,” he said.

Twitter could become harder to use in the technical sense if understaffing leads to problems. But Fritschner is more worried that trolls will rule amid Musk’s denuded moderation policies. There are concerns that is already happening, as Musk has restored accounts that were previously suspended for spewing fascism.  

Another Democratic comms aide kept it brief when responding to CQ Roll Call’s inquires, simply emailing a link to a New York Times article about the rise in racist, homophobic and antisemitic attacks. “Slurs against gay men appeared on Twitter 2,506 times a day on average before Mr. Musk took over. Afterward, their use rose to 3,964 times a day,” the authors wrote, also noting that slurs against Black Americans have tripled and antisemitic posts have risen 61 percent.

At the same time, The Intercept reported some left-wing activists have had their accounts suspended after being targeted by right-wing activists.

Andrew Lawrence at Media Matters, a progressive group that bird-dogs conservative media, had his account suspended. So, too, did Dean Baker, a progressive economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.  

It’s unclear if these suspensions are deliberate or are a product of an automated system now missing much of its human oversight. Twitter did not respond to a request for comment — perhaps because Musk gutted its communications team.

Like Republican offices before them, Democrats are exploring other social media options while remaining active on Twitter.

“To me, and many people similar to me on Democratic staff side, it’s about finding an alternative,” said Fritschner. “How do we keep communicating and reaching people we need to reach, whether journalists or colleagues?”

‘I’d be so bummed’

So far, Mastodon has drawn the most interest. A recent report found it has added more than 2.2. million users since Musk gained control of Twitter.

Demand Progress, a liberal advocate for congressional transparency and reform, has been tracking how many members are using Mastodon. So far, the group has counted 24 representatives, one delegate (D.C.’s Eleanor Holmes Norton), one senator (Mark Warner, D-Va.), one party committee (House Democrats) and two House committees (Budget, Energy and Commerce). All are Democrats.

Staffers for other Democrats and some Republicans said they’ve also signed their bosses up for Mastodon, but mostly out of an abundance of caution and to reserve a username before some joker or troll did.

“My boss has not demanded to go to another platform, but I’ve looked into Mastodon a bit as a safety measure,” said Tim Mack, communications director for Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Madeleine Dean. “I have a friend at Twitter that consistently tells me to calm down about some of this, so she keeps me a bit grounded.”

Mastodon is open-source software — in essence a community project without the dedicated, paid staff that Twitter once employed for developing new features or handling issues ranging from outages to rules enforcement. It includes multiple different servers, each with its own theme or community. 

Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress, said moving to a new platform could offer Congress the chance to get social media right this time. He was part of the crowd at the Sunlight Foundation who lobbied 14 years ago to change congressional franking rules to allow members to join Twitter.

Schuman wants Congress to create its own Mastodon server, which would allow it to verify office accounts and create a system for properly archiving posts.

Mastodon isn’t as easy to use as Twitter. For example, I couldn’t find Dean Baker by searching “Dean Baker.” Instead, I had to enter his username, DeanBaker13 (which I knew only because it’s the same as his Twitter handle). And there are other reasons it might not catch on. 

Even though social media has disrupted traditional gatekeeping, it’s still the journalists who give Twitter its power, said Russell, the University of Kentucky professor. “When journalists go somewhere else and they go somewhere else en masse, that’s probably when Congress will go somewhere else,” she said. “But it doesn’t seem to be happening yet.”

That’s a point GOP operatives echoed. “Twitter, for Republicans, is just a way to communicate with reporters,” one said.

“Twitter is mostly journalists, D.C. groups, political insiders and radical left-wing activists,” said another.

Except for reporters who cover right-wing politics, most journalists have stayed off the right-wing options like Parler and Truth Social. And besides a few enthusiastic early adopters, most have adopted a wait-and-see approach with Mastodon.

There was broad consensus among the Capitol Hill communications professionals on another aspect of the Twitter drama — they’ll be strangely sad to see it go, if it does collapse.

“Personally, I’d be so bummed because that’s where I spend all of my time,” said the GOP aide with the very offline boss.  

“If Twitter ended, it would be an overall good for society,” said another Republican staffer. “But personally, I spend a lot of time on Twitter, so I would not be happy in the short term without having access to hot takes in my pocket 24/7.”

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