Twitter takes flight in Congress

A growing number of lawmakers are using Twitter, a popular social-networking tool, to communicate with their constituents, according to research by government transparency advocates.

Often described as a micro-blogging service, Twitter enables users to quickly post short messages — or tweets — and distribute them to subscribers via e-mail, instant-messaging applications and similar tools.

As of today, 33 members of Congress are using the service, said Conor Kenny, managing editor of Congresspedia, a joint project by the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Media and Democracy.

The list of participating lawmakers includes Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), former candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and prominent Republicans such as Sen. Charles Grassley (Iowa) and Rep. John Boehner (Ohio).

Twitter has traditionally been used for communications among small groups of friends and family. But that has begun to change as the presidential campaigns and political advocates adopt the technology for mass communications.

Kenny cited Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) and Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) as examples of politicians who were among the first to use tweets to communicate directly with citizens. However, he said, many tweets from recent political adopters read like press releases from the communications department, he said.

Kenny added that the technology “caught fire” during the recent online campaign by conservative activists who support Republicans’ protests against Congress adjourning before lawmakers passed energy legislation. Liberal activists responded via Twitter, he said, adding that the whole episode has represented the evolution of a communications medium.

Culberson told constituents in an Aug. 2 posting on his Web site that he used the technology to broadcast the Republican protests of Congress’ adjournment. 
”Through and, I was able to give my constituents a firsthand look at the proceedings on the House floor, which were not accessible to anyone else,” he said. “By using this new technology, I am able to shine sunlight into the deepest corners of Congress.”

Ari Herzog, a political blogger who has been following the use of Twitter in Congress as well, said that he sees Twitter as a way for elected officials to show taxpayers and voters what they are doing.

“Whether the future with the Congress will be in YouTube or in Twitter or in some other technology, I think [those type of technologies] are where it’s going to be,” said Herzog.

However, Kenny said, if Twitter is increasingly used for broadcasting political messages rather than conducting conversations, it will likely garner more attention and cynicism. It remains to be seen how prevalent Twitter will be in the political sphere six months from now, he added.

“The very kind of openness that really fostered the media has become, in some ways, a liability,” he said.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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