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Twitter: A political force or an echo chamber?

Briana Bierschbach//August 10, 2011

Twitter: A political force or an echo chamber?

Briana Bierschbach//August 10, 2011

It’s getting harder to ignore Twitter in the political world.

Nationally, the social networking site was the catalyst for the recent Anthony Weiner scandal and his ultimate resignation, after the seven-term Democratic congressman from New York accidentally tweeted a lewd image of himself he had meant to send as a direct message to a woman. This year Massachusetts lawmakers banned members of the state Legislature from tweeting from their office computers, and in Minnesota, Twitter has been the focus of two ethics reviews and subsequent public apologies. It has also become a hub for all leagues of politicos around the state — activists, legislators, lobbyists, bloggers and communications staffers — to push messaging, content, and most often, to bicker.

“It’s indispensable,” said GOP Senate communications head and Republican Party Deputy Chairman Michael Brodkorb, one of the most prolific Minnesota politicos on Twitter. “It’s the quickest way to communicate both a direct political message or link to videos or other materials. It’s an easy way to both send a message and also to drive a message.”

But while pols and staffers feel the 140-character-or-less feed of information is an invaluable messaging tool, experts say the social networking site has mostly become a partisan echo chamber with little broad messaging impact. “I think it is overblown,” said Eric Ostermeier, a political science researcher at the University of Minnesota and the author of the Smart Politics blog. By his account, Twitter can reach a wide audience if a public official makes a serious gaffe on the site, mainly because political insiders — and reporters — monitor lawmakers’ Twitter feeds.

“In terms of trying to move the message in a positive direction for a political campaign or activity,” Ostermeier said, “I think it’s very difficult to move the needle with the public at large, because overall they are not engaged in the mini-Twitter wars that go on between the right and the left.”

Capitol echo chamber

Recent data from a Washington, D.C.-based PR firm shows that more than 10 percent of legislators throughout the nation have Twitter accounts. But a Minnesota political Twitter list puts the North Star state higher: At least 25 percent of Minnesota legislators are signed up on Twitter. Even more staffers and party operatives are on the site, tweeting regularly.

Brodkorb is highly active on Twitter. If he is not in the middle of a back-and-forth with a DFL politician or operative, he is tweeting details of an upcoming press conference, links to news stories or press releases. “It’s only going to get bigger as it shows that it is effective,” he said. “More people are using it on the floor in legislative bodies. They are using it to communicate positions, and I think that’s a good thing.”

But according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, only about 13 percent of online adults in the nation have used Twitter. Ostermeier notes Twitter has yet to hit the public reach of sites like Facebook, which has more than 750 million active users. Many people on Twitter do not use their accounts, he noted, and many others pay attention only to friends’ activities, not politics.

And a recent study suggests political tweets tend to follow partisan lines, creating an echoing effect and often just magnifying partisan bickering. A cadre of computer scientists at Indiana University in Bloomington recently used an algorithm to identify 250,000 tweets across the country with political labels, or hashtags, coming from about 45,000 users (gathered over a six-week period from a database of 355 million tweets). They determined that retweets — where one user simply rebroadcasts another’s message — fall in densely clustered networks, meaning liberal tweeters mostly retweet messages from other liberals, and right-leaning people retweet messages from other conservatives. A second network of “mentions” — where one Twitter user mentions another user in order to communicate — is far more heterogeneous, likely because partisan tweeters use the mention function when they argue over an issue.

“There is no doubt that it can accentuate some of the troubling aspects of the political conversation: extreme partisanship, name-calling — some emotions that are just not productive,” Citizens League Executive Director Sean Kershaw said.

GOP Sen. Sean Nienow is one of the most frequent tweeters among Minnesota legislators, and he acknowledges that Twitter can be a “closed feedback loop” inside the Capitol. While he sometimes uses it to communicate with constituents, he mostly monitors the site to get breaking news and information in real time.

He also tweets to get the attention of the Capitol press corps. Sometimes reporters pick up on his Twitter messaging, but mostly not, he said. “Oftentimes I will send something out that the press corps will see but they don’t necessarily respond to, and occasionally I will tweet something that gets some kind of response,” he said. “It’s a time-saver in the sense that, in many cases in the past, one would have had to take a walk down through the media section to say hey, here is what I think about this issue or this thing that is going on. Twitter is able to afford that opportunity in a brief, instant comment.”

And while it may be hard to get the media’s attention, Nienow said he did catch Gov. Mark Dayton’s eye on Twitter once. During pre-shutdown negotiations, Nienow regularly advocated for his “lights on” bill on Twitter and railed on the governor after he missed a budget negotiation meeting. “The governor commented in a meeting that he was annoyed about politicians calling him out on Twitter for skipping a meeting, and that was probably me,” he said. “You can have those types of influences as well, not letting people get away with games like that.”

A growing influence

In order to give Minnesota Capitol types an easy way to monitor the best of the political tweets, GOP operative Ben Golnik helped start Tweet MN, a one-stop site that organizes political tweets by lawmakers, Capitol press, politicos and a category labeled “just for fun.” During the shutdown, visitation spiked on the site from across the state, but mainly the traffic has been streaming in from people inside the Capitol world, he said: lobbyists, legislators, staffers and other insiders.

That’s changing, according to Golnik: “Twitter and politics seems to be on the cusp of the coming war for the mainstream media and general public.” But it’s a double-edged sword, he added. As more politicians jump on Twitter as a way to communicate with a broad swath of people, they often don’t have an editor watching what they are tweeting on their personal accounts.

Two ethics complaints have popped up at the Capitol over politicians using Twitter. In May 2009, GOP Reps. Mark Buesgens and Tom Emmer filed an ethics complaint against DFL Rep. Paul Gardner for comments Gardner made on Twitter during a House floor session. “Emmer seems to belittle his female colleagues (rage, sarcasm) on the floor more than the men? Great face to the GOP?” Gardner tweeted, and, “Why is Buesgens wearing sunglasses? Black eye?” He deleted his Twitter account shortly after the incident, but ultimately apologized for the tweets on the first day of the 2010 session.

This session, GOP freshman Sen. Gretchen Hoffman touched off a storm of protest during a debate on the health and human services budget conference report when she tweeted that DFL Sen. Barb Goodwin had called the mentally ill “idiots and imbeciles.” “Sen Goodwin just called people with mental illness-idiots and imbeciles- while debating HHS bill #offensive #mndfl #mnsrc #mnleg,” she tweeted. Brodkorb then retweeted the message.

Goodwin complained that the comment was willfully taken out of context, and Sen. Ann Rest eventually filed an ethics charge in the matter.

The Senate ethics hearing lasted close to six hours, mostly due to the fact that not one of the committee members—two Republican and two Democratic senators —had a Twitter account. “I struggle with this Twitter, tweeter thing,” said GOP Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen. On several occasion the lawmakers called tweets “twits.”

The Senate ethics panel ruled that Hoffman must apologize for the tweet. The episode illustrated the still-developing role Twitter plays in state politics. But despite the two gaffes, a ban similar to the one in Massachusetts does not seem imminent in Minnesota.

By Ostermeier’s account, the medium could also become an important tool for the DFL minority caucuses as they work to push their message during the 2012 campaign. He said that more Republicans than Democrats were using Twitter when GOPers were in the minority, mostly to sound off about DFL positions or legislation. Ostermeier sees that flip-flopping now. “You are hungrier when you’re in the minority,” he said. “It will be a key role for those in the minority to get that message out.”

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