More political candidates tweet on Twitter to win seat
These days, 140 characters can uplift or upend a promising political career within moments of being posted on Twitter.
Founded in 2006, the social media forum allows people to read, write and share messages — or tweets — that are limited to a maximum 140 characters per posting.
During this year’s congressional and gubernatorial campaigns, experts say, one whimsical tweet that sounds clever inside a candidate’s head easily could be taken out of context by someone else online. The impact could crash a career and perhaps even tip the balance of power in Washington or a state capital.
“The imprint of Twitter on what you say is like a tattoo; it’s pretty nonremovable,” said Dane Strother, a Democratic strategist in suburban Washington.
“The speed at which information of high concern travels through media has become blinding,” said Bruce Haynes, a Washington-based Republican strategist. “Twenty years ago, it took 24 hours for high-concern information to travel through media. Ten years ago, it took four hours. Today it takes four minutes.”
Voters will decide 435 House seats, one-third of the 100-member Senate and 36 governor’s races. All U.S. senators, 97 percent of House members and 49 governors have Twitter accounts, according to Bridget Coyne of the Twitter Government team (@gov).
An unknown number of their opponents might use the site to connect with voters as well.
Some members of Congress use Twitter “like a virtual town hall,” Coyne said, who touts the site as a way for people to “follow and tweet with the candidates, political reporters, and other informed citizens to stay up-to-date with the latest news.”
But Strother and others caution that politicians can get into trouble by interacting in cyberspace.
“The short answer is someone is likely to go down on Twitter for something inappropriate they have tweeted,” said Strother.
Perhaps the most well-known example is former Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., whose penchant for sending women lewd photos of himself caused him to leave office in disgrace and to lose a subsequent election.
Yet, said Strother, “what he did is not a reason for an elected official or candidate not to use the micro-blogging program.”
Twitter’s usefulness in engaging with constituents “far outweighs any possibility of Weiner-like disaster,” Haynes agreed.
Since Samuel Morse sent the first telegraph message — “What hath God wrought?” — from the Capitol to the B&O Railroad Depot in Baltimore in 1844, Congress has embraced technological innovations as a way to communicate with constituents. Newsletters, radio and TV expanded the outreach, but even with the later advent of email and the Internet, that communication largely remained a one-way street, said House historian Matthew Wasniewski.
“Social media is unique because it opens up a two-way street, combining the ability to move information very quickly to broad or very targeted audiences (and) soliciting an immediate response through reactions, comments, sharing, retweeting,” he said.
Many campaign strategists emphasize to clients that candidates and their staffs need coaching to avoid tweeting something that becomes a mistake politically. In other words, never underestimate the power of the untweeted thought.
“Just because something makes you laugh when you are sitting alone, without the context of voice, doesn’t mean everyone will view it as clever or witty,” said John Brabender, a Washington-based Republican strategist. “It may not translate well in 140 characters, either because it was only funny in the moment, or because it wasn’t funny at all.”
Brabender tells clients to use common sense and to filter thoughts before tweeting something that comes to mind.
“You have to control yourself, as if you are going to the center of the country with a megaphone,” he said. “Nobody really cares what you had for lunch, and nobody wants you to share every single thing you do in your life.”
Brabender’s highest-profile client, Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator and Republican presidential candidate, posts his own tweets. But others ask staff members to tweet some information under their Twitter handle, he said.
Candidates who don’t send their tweets risk losing the personal touch, some experts say, but if a staffer makes a mistake, the consequence could be less damaging.
In his 2012 campaign, President Obama used his Twitter account to announce events, speeches and policy positions. A staff member started the account in 2007, months before Obama became a presidential candidate. Obama handed over his account to his campaign arm, Organizing for America, last spring. Tweets the president sends himself are signed: “— BO.”
According to Coyne, @BarackObama‘s re-election “Four More Years” tweet is the most retweeted message among all tweets.
Monitoring what people say about you on Twitter is as important as tweeting, experts say.
A Pew Research Center report late last year found that only 8 percent of U.S. adults, or about one in 10, get their news through Twitter. But what happens on Twitter isn’t confined to those who follow Twitter.
“If what you said on Twitter is big enough, either in a positive or negative way, it will make its way onto your local news report,” said Haynes — though many spats or snarky conversations on Twitter, especially those involving campaign surrogates and not the candidates, typically remain confined to the social network.
The two-part Pew report was based on a survey of more than 5,000 people and a three-year analysis of Twitter conversations about major news events. Researchers studied information shared online, sentiments expressed and oscillation of interest.
The survey found 16 percent of American adults use Twitter, half of whom said the site is their primary news source.
“For all of the potential of Twitter in politics, there are a lot more don’ts than do’s,” said John Lapp, a Democratic strategist. “Remember, once it’s typed and sent, it can’t be unsent.”
Lapp urges candidates to read with a critical eye before hitting “send,” asking themselves, “Could this offend someone, be misinterpreted? Is there a chance I might regret this?”
Most important, he said, “don’t tweet in anger. … Be selective; don’t feel you need to weigh in on everything.”
Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at email@example.com.