Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Twitter Tool

"We came across the word `twitter,' and it was just perfect. The definition was `a short burst of inconsequential information,' and `chirps from birds.' And that's exactly what the product was."

-Twitter creator Jack Dorsey

When Twitter first burst upon the scene, it seemed innocent enough. Another high-tech, whiz-bang communication tool whose primary job was to help people avoid the scourge of social isolation. After all, there are always millions of close personal friends to talk to on a networking site.

I never bought into it. I didn't believe my friends were interested in how I enjoyed Taco Tuesday at the local Mexican joint or that I was standing in line at Trader Joe's.

It turns out, however, there is a huge appetite for "inconsequential information." As of June 2010, about 65 million tweets are posted each day, equaling about 750 tweets per second, according to Twitter.

Everybody's doing it, even politicians. Which is surprising considering that our public servants aren't always quick to spot a trend.

Why are they suddenly embracing social networking with such vigor?

Example A is John McCain, who is the top-ranked tweeter on Capitol Hill, with more than 1.7 million followers. This from a 74-year-old guy who in 2008 admitted he had to rely on his wife to access the Internet.

Perhaps the answer can be found in the words of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who believes tweeting is a useful political tool.

"Using Twitter to bypass traditional media and directly reach voters is definitely a good thing," Gingrich said.

Aha! Bypass traditional media. That means he can get his message out without dealing with bothersome details such as context, opposing viewpoints and factual evidence.

What a breakthrough for technology. What a setback for informed political discourse.

So far, political tweets are a mixed bag. Many are downright benign. Take Arkansas Congressman John Boozman for example. "Eating breakfast with a constituent," he tweeted. "Honored to receive the National Farmers Union's Golden Triangle Award," tweeted Connecticut Congressman Joseph Courtney.

Some are happy ("Great afternoon watching skijoring in Wisdom, Montana," wrote Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont.) and some are angry ("Accusations against me unfounded. No benefit, no improper action, no failure 2 disclose, no one influenced: no case," argued Los Angeles Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who is facing ethics charges).

Sometimes political satire makes an appearance: "1 in 5 Americans believe Obama is a Muslim. 1 in 5 also believe in alien abductions and can't find the U.S. on a map." Or "Outrage Over Plans to Build Library Next to Sarah Palin."

Trash-talking tweets are not unknown, even at the highest levels. After a recent front-page New York Times story painted House Minority Leader John Boehner as beholden to special interests and swayed by his large network of lobbyists, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs tweeted, "Story on Boehner covers some of his greatest hits - handing out checks from lobbyists on the House floor" - referring to a 1995 incident when the Ohio Republican doled out contributions on the House floor, an act later outlawed. Gibbs then disseminated Boehner's quote about how passing out checks probably "doesn't look good."

But, the Politico website reported that Boehner was not to be outdone. He tweeted about a June 24 Times story describing how members of the Obama administration were meeting with lobbyists at Caribou Coffee on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House. "@PressSec forgot to Tweet about Dems meeting w/lobbyists @ Caribou." He added that Gibbs "also hasn't explained how raising taxes on small businesses will create jobs. We're still waiting."

Twitter is also no stranger to deception and tastelessness. Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart used a tweet from Rep. Jack Kimble of California as a launching pad for a blog post on who is to blame for the current federal deficits. The problem? There is no Rep. Jack Kimble; that Twitter account is a spoof.

And when Sen. Ted Kennedy died, conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart tweeted, "Rest in Chappaquiddick."

Twitter at the very least runs the risk of being a source for political misinformation, rained down on the public in 140-character bites.

California political advertising watchdogs agree, proposing that online advertising and paid political postings on social networking sites be regulated the same way they are in other media.

Fair Political Practices Commission Chairman Dan Schnur told the San Francisco Chronicle that the goal is to apply the same rules, regardless of the media chosen.

"Whether the message is delivered by mail or by e-mail, or by television or online video, the same principles remain in place: Voters should know who's responsible for the information they are hearing and seeing."

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