If a lawmaker tweets with no followers, does it make a sound?


Flickr image of Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) courtesy Center for American Progress

On some days it feels like social media sites have fully permeated the web, while on other days, it’s easy to still find vast areas of the political landscape where new communications tools haven’t fully reached.

Among the leaders in Congress learning to adapt is Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi and chair of the House Homeland Security Committee who’s about to lose that position due to Republican gains during the mid-term elections. He made a string of relatively big announcements in late November using a new Twitter account created under the committee’s name, @HomelandSecCom.

At the time, however, Thompson’s profile had little more than a dozen followers and he’d posted just three messages in two weeks, the equivalent of a novel every 10 years on Twitter. By comparison, the committee’s likely future chair, Republican Peter King of New York, has nearly 2,000 followers and he (or his aides – it’s hard to tell) has posted 650 tweets.

King is the congressman who has called for Wikileaks to be designated as a foreign terrorist organization. You can read that tweet here. Susan Collins of Maine and Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman together have led homeland security oversight for years now on the Senate side, and the duo has over 14,000 followers combined.

None of them can compare to the Twitter machine gun known as Sarah Palin, who has almost 320,000 followers and has mastered squeezing almost anything into a 140-character tweet. See here and here. Palin is the former Republican nominee for Vice President who now kills salmon on TV. You can read that tweet here.

For those who don’t have a Twitter account or understand how it works, think of it this way: If only half of your office is signed up to receive staff-wide emails, only half of your office is going to see it when you send out a staff-wide email (and that’s assuming they open the email before it sinks deep into the bowels of their inbox).

Active Twitter users who follow lots of people and groups (like reporters) can easily miss messages, so press officers generally use Twitter as a supplement, not as the sole mechanism for communicating with the public.

But in an apparent burst of inspiration over a three-day period in November, Thompson tweeted new proposed bills, the results of an internal report on training airport screeners and calls for TSA chief John Pistole to rethink the use of controversial pat-down searches. There were press releases linked in some of the tweets, but Thompson and the committee didn’t always send out parallel emails to make sure as many people as possible knew what was going on. Essentially, they were shouting into the 600 tweets-per-minute storm that makes up Twitter.

A spokeswoman, Dena Graziano, said that’s simply because some statements are distributed to the public at large via email, while others are narrowly targeted to beat reporters with a clear interest in the subject matter. Graziano said the new Twitter profile was Thompson’s idea and she doesn’t even have an account of her own. “We’re getting into it,” Graziano said of using social media to connect with both the press and public.

Using it effectively nonetheless matters, because unlike most people online, Thompson lords over tens of billions of dollars in annual taxpayer spending and is in a position to deeply influence homeland security policy. His tweets should carry more significance than your average #partythisweekend hashtag.

One proposed bill announced in a Nov. 18 tweet would curtail special contracting privileges granted to the Alaska Native Corporations, a consortium of businesses created by Congress to help certain minority groups gain a stronger economic foothold. ANCs, as they're know, have received $29 billion in federal contracts over the last 10 years. The bill followed closely on the heels of investigative stories published this fall by Washington Post reporter Robert O’Harrow. He raised questions about whether federal agencies had mishandled the ANC program and used it to circumvent rules requiring that private businesses compete for taxpayer money.

(Full disclosure: O’Harrow advises CIR’s homeland security project and published the 2005 book “No Place to Hide” with support from the center.)

Thompson’s legislation, along with a companion bill in the Senate, would eliminate the unique advantages granted to ANCs and bring them more in line with other so-called “8(a)” companies that are eligible for limited preferences due to being owned by women and minorities. Although there was an accompanying press release, it didn’t show up in our email inbox, and Elevated Risk only caught it because we were one of Thompson’s few Twitter followers at the time.

A second bill announced by Thompson the day before via Twitter did also appear as a publicly distributed email. That legislation would require private companies like chemical manufacturers and utilities that control sensitive infrastructure assets to show what they’re doing to protect against cyber attacks. Similar regulations already mandate that such businesses explain to the government how they defend against terrorism.

Another tweet urged TSA head Pistole to “reconsider patdown use,” but there was no link. After some digging, you could learn that Thompson sent an official letter to Pistole expressing concern about the intrusiveness of pat-down searches. Thompson eventually followed with a later post.

Yet another tweet attacked fellow policymakers, calling it a “shame that some are using legitimate TSA pat-down concerns to advance their privatization agenda.” Again there was no link, but that was merely a viewpoint the chairman wanted to convey, Graziano said. It was also apparently a response to GOP Rep. John Mica of Florida, who amid the pre-Thanksgiving fervor over airport screening procedures argued that TSA employees should have their jobs farmed out to private companies.

Things have changed somewhat since that fateful period in Thompson’s Twitter legacy. He finally sent out an email Nov. 30 announcing that the homeland security committee is “now on Twitter!” While his followers have shot up well past 100 since then, Thompson is still slow to tweet and URLs aren’t being shortened. His latest message from Dec. 1?

Allowing guns on Amtrak is just bad policy.

No one’s expecting Congress to fully comprehend Twitter by tomorrow. But it’s worth noting that tweets will always read differently coming from powerful people in a position to change what they view as bad policy.

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