What Twitter has meant for politics (and what it hasn’t)

March 21, 2013

Twitter turns seven years old today.


Someone who knows a thing or two about the intersection of Twitter and poltiics: Former congressman Anthony Weiner. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

So it's worth looking back at the most important ways the microblogging tool has impacted the world of politics. In short, Twitter has been the staging ground for political scandals both large and small and has rapidly increased the speed and scope of campaigns and campaign coverage. And yet, for all its influence and reach, Twitter has fallen short as a broad gauge of the public's reaction to big political events.

Let's take a closer look at each development in some more detail.

First, it would be impossible to have a discussion about the intersection of politics and Twitter without reflecting upon the way it's shaped the modern political scandal. Politicians have been tripped up by their use of Twitter enough times to compile a long list.

The most notable example is Anthony Weiner, the former New York congressman whose 2011 fall from grace began with a single tweet containing a lewd photo of himself. Weiner first blamed the tweet on a hacker before later confessing, as more photos surfaced. He resigned from the House shortly thereafter.

Last year, it was a Twitter direct message Jimmy Carter's grandson sent the man who filmed Mitt Romney "47 percent" video that set in motion the events leading to its widespread release.

More minor scandals have been triggered by eyebrow-raising tweets, too. Take the recent case of Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), who revealed the existence of a 24-year-old daughter after a widely covered Twitter exchange during the night of this year's State of the Union speech. Cohen's office initially said the woman was the daughter of a family friend.

The big takeaway here is that Twitter has enabled direct communication between politicians and, well, the rest of the world. It's an immediate -- and often unfiltered -- mode of communication, which the last seven years have shown can be dangerous for pols who otherwise live under a shroud of privacy, handlers, and carefully selected talking points.

As to the the speed and scope of campaigns and campaign coverage, Twitter has been quite the catalyst. For journalists (The Fix included), it's a medium that's allowed quick bits of breaking news and analysis to be instantly pushed out to the world. The publishing process is literally only as long as it takes to whip up 140 characters and hit send.

For campaigns and elected officials, Twitter's been a way to connect directly with constituents and other interested observers, circumventing traditional media.

Romney's personal assistant maintained a Twitter account which received a lot of attention in the 2012 campaign. He used it to offer occasional behind-the-scenes peeks at the candidate on the campaign trail. Here's a glimpse he provided of a pre-debate meal:

Meanwhile, this 2012 election night tweet from President Obama quickly became his most retweeted ever:

Faux-Twitter accounts have become more common in politics, too. In 2011, a strategist for then-Sen. Scott Brown (R) confessed to being behind the @CrazyKhazei account, which lampooned Alan Khazei, then a Democratic candidate for Brown's Massachusetts seat.

But even as Twitter has grown into a larger part of the political conversation, it's far from a spot-on reflector of public opinion in politics.

A recent Pew Research Center study compared automated content analysis of all tweets surrounding major political events to results from public polls. The reactions on Twitter were often at odds with the opinons Americans were expressing in polls. In some cases, the tone of the Twitter conversations was more liberal; in others, it was more conservative.

The first presidential debate of 2012 was a prime example. Polling showed Mitt Romney was widely viewed as the winner; yet the overall Twitter tone favored Obama.

Another example: The federal court ruling that California's gay marriage ban was unconstitutional. Twitter reaction was far more positive than negative, even as Pew polling showed a plurality of Americans reacting negatively.

The merits and drawbacks of Twitter's influence on the political conversation can be dissected at great length. And the question of whether a dialogue comprising of 140-character spurts is good or bad for politics and political journalism will continue to be the subject of debate. But one thing that is beyond dispute is that, for better or worse, Twitter has left a deep mark on the political process.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Politics
Next Story
Chris Cillizza · March 21, 2013