Twitter as a Political Tool

Next week the Senate will vote to repeal Obamacare (again).

Listening to Monday’s episode of Pod Save America (a political podcast hosted by former Obama speechwriters), I was struck when one of them mentioned that Senator Rand Paul’s vote for repeal was probably a no. Not because of his intention to vote no. But because of the source of this information: Rand Paul’s Twitter feed.

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The latest health care plan, titled “Graham-Cassidy,” is a last-ditch effort by Republicans to repeal Obamacare before budget reconciliation on September 30th, after which they would need the support of Democratic votes. Passing a repeal bill through budget reconciliation means that Republicans would need a simple majority (re: 51 votes) for the bill to advance on to the GOP-controlled House.

This background is important when considering what communication vehicle ended up getting the most publicity. What got the attention of the public and various media outlets wasn’t a press conference, an interview via TV/newspaper, a radio blitz, or the myriad of other ways Senator Paul made his intentions to vote “no” clear. It was a 140-character modus operandi. Not just for any bill either, but for a piece of legislation [repealing Obamacare] that the Republican party has been running on for years, and have been attempting to pass through both GOP-controlled chambers numerous times in 2017 alone. The importance to the party of getting this bill passed before September 30th deadline cannot be understated.

We have become so focused on the sideshow that surrounds Trump’s tweets, that somewhere along the way Twitter became the main tool that media outlets and the public alike have turned to for policy and Congressional matters.

Which is why Senator Bill Cassidy, one of the architects behind Graham-Cassidy, tweeted back at Senator Rand Paul.

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The current political environment is chaotic; I know in my mind, when I think of Twitter and politics my mind instantly goes to the latest Trump tweet. But, as highlighted by the above exchange, Twitter is not just a vehicle for the latest Trump-rant. It has actually become a platform where elected politicians debate policy with each other that is both in front of and accessible to the entire public. I would argue this is a historic political evolution on par with the 1960 presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, the first time the presidential debates were televised.

The shortened-attention span of the average American has made Twitter the perfect medium for politicians when communicating with the public. I follow the news regularly, and I consider myself well informed. However, I have not read the Graham-Cassidy bill, and I would hazard a guess that few in the public sphere have unless they have a job related to politics. Why read a lengthy bill when it can be summarized for you in short blasts from your representative or favorite politic wonk?

When first considering this phenomena, I thought it was a positive move. Before, the conversation between Rand Paul and Bill Cassidy would most likely have taken place behind closed doors. The public would never have been privy to this exchange. The advent of Twitter has made politics more transparent then ever before. But, like the first televised presidential debates, I think there are further implications of politics moving to Twitter. Televising the debates brought in a new angle: suddenly it wasn’t just about your ability to debate and communicate your policies, but also your appearance.

What if, similarly, Twitter makes us focus less on the policy and more on the ability of attention-grabbing 140-character blasts? The exchange between Cassidy and Paul doesn’t give you any insight into the actual policy behind the bill. It gives a one liner that, out of context, is hard to see what the bill will actually do.

Furthermore, this gives a lot of power into the hands of politicians. Being able to quickly reach a large group of followers (rather than before, where constituents would have to go to a Congresspersons website to find their stance on issues), now in a few seconds a Congressperson can reach a huge, wide-ranging audience. And, unlike before, now their policies or opinion on a bill is nicely summarized for you.

The use of Twitter to communicate with voters, colleagues, political leaders, etc. will only continue to grow in the coming years. Compare the below graphics from Tweet Congress, a site that tracks Congress Twitter accounts and usage, from August in 2016 versus 2017.

That’s an increase of about 30% in Twitter activity for the same period year-over-year. I believe this trend will only continue, especially after the 2016 election and Trump’s heavy reliance on Twitter use as a means of direct communication with his base. We were, and still are, privy to the power Trump’s tweets hold. He has leveraged them to an unprecedented extent, going so far as to create policy on the site, without first informing those involved.

Trump’s Twitter activity, and the heavy focus the public and media places on each Tweet, has shown other politicians the power and publicity (for better or for worse) that you can get through leveraging your Twitter account. As a politician, the appeal of tweeting for attention rather than for substance could create a dangerous precedent. Instead of making our political landscape more transparent, it may dissolve into a circus.

5 comments

  1. Yvette Zhou · ·

    Great post! Love your logic in the article and clear statistics for comparison. As a non-US citizen, I am not so sure about the politics status here. But I have heard a lot of jokes about Trump tweeting and it sort of becomes a hot topic after he won the election. Obviously, twitter does help politicians to deliver information and make topics among the audience. That is the beauty of social media – not networking only for entertainment but everything in the world such as business, education, charity, a lot! It is a great tool for everyone to market themselves including the politicians. And within the internet age coming, maybe it’s the time for us to learn how to use social media to grab values !

  2. mattwardbc · ·

    This is an extremely well written, thought-provoking post. I found myself contemplating the power these politicians have in tweeting on such a grandiose topic and how we all as Americans stand to lose out on policy debates by boiling down enormous topics into 140 characters. I believe that our current politically appointed officials are recklessly utilizing social media platforms and stand to severely damage the country.

  3. MAY dissolve into a circus?!?!?! I’ll just stop there.

  4. juliabrodigan · ·

    Great post! It is crazy how much power social media has over politics and public opinion. Social media plays an instrumental role in spreading the opinions and views of politicians and normal citizens on important social and world topics. I think that politicans use of social media has its pros and cons. It is a good platform for them to express their opinions and spread important messages, but their messages and opinions can also be misinterpreted.

  5. Anna Copman · ·

    Great post Lillian! Definitely agree with your major points, and to echo prof Kane’s reaction, I think I we definitely got a taste of that when I took this class last fall. Circus is probably the most apt description for election season in the twittersphere. Thanks for your insight!

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