Will Weinergate put Congress off Twitter?

Whether you see Weinergate as a hoot or an omen depends on where you sit.

The media has been covering Weinergate with relish, and the public's appetite for the story has proven nearly insatiable.

But members of Congress are not so cavalier. Ever since the news broke that Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) had accidentally (he says) tweeted a frank photo of himself to several thousand followers on Twitter, his colleagues have shown more caution about using the social media service.

According to Mashable, tweets from members of Congress dropped sharply after Weiner’s scandal hit the news. The largest dip was seen May 30, the Monday after the scandal broke, with Republicans sending just 191 tweets, down from 910 on May 26. Democrats' numbers dipped to 88 on May 30, from 240 on May 26. Mashable drew its numbers from TweetCongress, which tracks the activity of members of Congress on Twitter.

“The lesson here for members of Congress might be to avoid engaging in inappropriate online romances altogether or, at the very least, to be more cautious when sending direct messages,” writes Jennifer Van Grove at Mashable. “But preliminary data in the aftermath of Weinergate shows that the actual lesson Congress members are taking to heart is to avoid Twitter altogether.”

Weiner first denied having sent the photo, showing (we're trying to be delicate here) a man’s underwear-clad pelvic region, claiming his account had been hacked. Eventually, he admitted to having sent it, explaining that he meant to send it directly to a female follower and accidentally tweeted it to all his followers. (Weiner claimed he meant to send the photo as a joke to a woman in Seattle. We’re not sure that’s the smartest way to evoke laughter in any case.)

In some ways, Weiner’s pickle is Twitter’s fault, writes Steven Levy in Wired. Some of Twitter’s more famous users — celebrities in particular — didn’t want the service to allow users to send messages to any other user, as you can do with e-mail, Levy writes. So Twitter set up the service so that you can send a direct message only to someone who is following you. That lets celebrities tweet to their fans while not getting barraged with thousands of direct messages from said fans.

Although it's easy to tweet something to your whole list of followers that you meant for one person, a member of Congress doing it with an inappropriate photograph “was so crazily egregious that Weiner’s initial lies that his account had been hacked seemed plausible,” Levy writes. “But the evidence of his deeper misbehavior was already out in the open: the thumbnails of the young women he followed, publicly available on his Twitter account.… The women talked, and Weiner’s original ‘I was hacked’ story fell apart.”

Weiner's Twitter patterns also helped unravel his story. Twitter allows users to send private messages only to people who follow them, so the only way to have two-way private communications on Twitter is for both people to follow each other. Therefore, Weiner began following attractive young women, who stood out among the coterie of journalists, politicians and celebrities that Weiner was also following.

"Among the original 91 people the congressman followed were many young women," writes Charles Simmins at Yahoo News. "A timeline prepared by one blogger illustrates the Twitter behavior as was visible publicly. The congressman's current Twitter stream clearly shows he was using Twitter just before the picture link was sent and right after."

Washington Post opinion writer E. J. Dionne lamented the distraction of personality-driven news, which enables people to avoid substantive discussions. "Okay, most of us will always pay attention to sex stories, and apocalyptic fears are usually a form of paranoia," he writes. "But we’re a superpower with big economic problems. We’re acting like a country that has all the time in the world to dance around our troubles by indulging in ideological fantasies and focusing on the behavioral fantasies of wayward politicians — who, by the way, keep creating opportunities for distraction."

So what is the lesson for public officials who use Twitter and would like to avoid creating such opportunities for distraction? We think it’s pretty simple: Use Twitter for professional topics only. Don’t tweet anything you wouldn’t want your spouse to see. If you do need to send a private message for a legitimate reason (such as handling a confidential matter for a constituent), use e-mail or the telephone rather than risk a Twitter mistake.

In short: Don’t be a Weiner.

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