Congress faces challenges in identifying constituents using social media

Citizens are becoming more influential through social networks and influencing their peers. Research from the The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project suggests that government 2.0 an important trend, with respect to our understanding of what it means to be a citizen and how our actions influence those of our fellow citizens. The role of the Internet as a platform for collective action is growing but the authorities that control the levers of power offline still matters immensely.

Today, Politico reported that social media isn’t so hot on the Hill. Or, as reported, “Congress is using social media to talk, not listen.” Both media outlets were reporting on survey results conducted by the Congressional Management Foundation on perceptions of citizen advocacy by Congressional staffers.

A better headline, however, might have been “Twitter isn’t so hot on the hill with lawmakers,” given myriad challenges around identifying constituents online, automated campaigns and what Representative Culberson (R-TX) described as a “lot of trolls on Twitter.” (It’s even worse on YouTube, Congressman.) The question posed at the end of the Politico article — “Are lawmakers putting too much time — or staff resources — into social media?” is followed with Pew stats on *Twitter* use and penetration, not Facebook.

The complaints from numerous anonymous Congressional staffers about the time it takes to maintain social media are likely honest and parallel the experiences of higher-paid contemporaries in private industry, academia, media, fashion and the nonprofit worlds. Managing multiple social media presences can, indeed, be a pain in the a–. And it takes resources, in terms of time, that may be scarcer than ever. That said, social media is now part of the lexicon of Congressional staff trusted with constituent communications. If a Representative or Senator is speaking anywhere in DC, there’s an increasingly good chance that snippets of it may tweeted, unusual pictures will be tagged on Facebook and that any gaffes will be up on YouTube later.

Doing more than trying to fit the 20th century model of broadcasting to these platform requires time, expertise and commitment, along with a thick skin. Opening up these new online channels for Congressional communications created challenges, to be sure, but then so did adding the telegraph, radio, television, fax machines, cellphones and email. It’s not hard to find past news reports of Senators resisting the addition of dial phones to the Hill.

Every new communications technology has had an impact on Congress. In 2011, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube do each come with new wrinkles. YouTube and Twitter can work in concert to share video and share it instantly with the world. At the same time, on the Hill, automated campaigns using social media have followed the path of email and faxes deluges. Carefully edited videos can trim key context from statements, or audio from broadcasts. The risks and rewards for the use of Web 2.0 that pertain to federal and state agencies also pertain to Congress.

Take, for instance, Facebook, which is generally tied to the real identities of citizens. Engaging with citizens carries with it identity and privacy issues for constituents. That’s the rub, and it won’t come out easily. Look at how San Francisco integrated city services with 311 and Facebook for an example of how government can mitigate and address some of those issues. The National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace might address some of the challenges as well.

In the meantime, Congresional staffers and citizens alike can hope that new, improved architectures for participatory democracy online come along soon to upgrade the status quo in Washington.

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.


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