For a platform with such a comparatively small user base, Twitter is awfully good at making the news. From revolutions on the other side of the world to Weiner-gate, it certainly has the power to make headlines.
Once again, the microblogging platform is getting media attention thanks to none other than our Commander-in-Chief, President Obama. On Father’s Day, he made his first tweet (up till now all the tweets were written by his staff):
Being a father is sometimes my hardest but always my most rewarding job. Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there. –BO.
From now, on the president will be doing some of his own tweeting, and he is using the best practice we endorse here at SixEstate — initialing his tweets. Anything you read on that account signed with “-BO” is Obama’s own, whereas the other tweets are produced by his staff. This is important transparency to provide when multiple people are tweeting through the same account.
It hardly takes a genius to notice that this is happening right as the campaign fervor of a reelection effort kicks off. A good time for him to attempt to emphasize the personal connection that social media represents. Last time around, he was able to use it to great effect, but throughout the election it was basically a broadcast rather than a social mechanism.
Of course, there will be vibrant views expressed both pro and con. For instance, Frederick E. Allen, who writes for Forbes, doesn’t seem to have a complimentary view of the practice:
Granted, he has 8.6 million Twitter followers, so the medium is politically invaluable for him. And he has recognized that fact, having already kept the account squarely political; his campaign is taking it over from the Democratic National Committee, not from the White House. But could this represent a peak in the all-importance of Twitter? Could it happen that the universal embrace of this form in which no complex or nuanced thought can ever be expressed is reaching its most faddish height, and a time will before long arrive when we can turn back to other activities instead of feeling pressured — if we are in politics or media or any kind of public-facing business — to tweet all day?
Is it really 8.6 million followers? That is an incredible number. The State Column notes that Obama’s profile is the third most followed one on Twitter. He only lags behind Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. (Make of that what you will.) With all respect to Allen, but a megaphone with that kind of reach is something a running politician could not possibly pass up. Politics is, on many levels, all about steering the conversation. And 8.6 million followers means a lot of eyes on your message.
Gloria Goodale, a writer for The Christian Science Monitor, notes that this may also be in reaction to recent Twitter-based missteps :
But the move also reflects lessons learned from Congressman Weiner’s scandal. Politicians are under pressure to reassure followers about who is actually behind social media messages, and followers are getting more adept at sniffing out when a public figure is using social media consultants to post and tweet on his or her behalf, says Jonathan Askin, a media professor at Brooklyn Law School.
By tweeting himself and initialing it, Obama has put a more seemingly transparent face on things. Unfortunately, the flaw in this approach was made apparent almost immediately.
There are no security measures or guarantee of authenticity provided by those initials. It is the best practice from a professional standpoint, but not at all a true proof of authorship. This was thrown into sharp relief by the actions of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). On June 21, the NRSC sent a series of fake retweets purporting to have originated from the President, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, former Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, and a number of other prominent democrats.
Graeme McMillian, who blogs for TIME, provides some details:
Over the course of an hour, the official NRSC Twitter account sent out six fake retweeted messages from Obama, Reid, Kaine, Jon Tester, Claire McCaskill and the Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Committee linking to new Republican joke website Democrat’s Plan for America, which is nothing more than a blank page (because the Democratic Party has no plan for America, in case the ‘joke’ was too subtle for you).
The fake messages played to Republican cliches about each Democrat, with Obama’s reading ‘My budget failed 0-97 but wait till you see @SenateDems budget – BO.’
Notice the “- BO”? It only takes three keystrokes, and I don’t think there is any doubt that Obama did not write that one.
The world of American politics is a murky and combative place where propaganda and ideological sales pitches come at you thick and fast. Like so many things, this is vastly accelerated by social media. Actions like the one taken in this instance by the NSRC are reprehensible but easily exposed. As time goes by, both sides will get better and better at massaging their message and delivery. Next time, it may not be so easy to get exposed.
No matter what one’s political stance may be, I think we can all agree that we would like the truth from our representatives in office. While obviously skirting the edge of satire, the tweets are still misrepresented, something I fear we will see a lot more of from both parties as elections draw resolutely nearer.
The NRSC desperately needs to learn that something cannot be retweeted if it was never tweeted in the first place. Ethical considerations aside — and there are many of those — it is against Twitter’s terms of service. Twitter’s official Terms of Service states that “[users] may not impersonate others through the Twitter service in a manner that does or is intended to mislead, confuse, or deceive others.” It really is just that simple.
It will be quite interesting to see if this blows up or blows over in the news. What are your thoughts?
Source: “Obama Succumbs to the Tyranny of Twitter,” Forbes‘ Leadership View, 06/21/11
Source: “Obama and Twitter: Why he took control of his own account,” The Christian Science Monitor, 06/20/11
Source: “President Obama takes control of Twitter account,” The State Column, 06/21/11
Source: “Twitterer in Chief: Obama Starts Tweeting,” ABC News, Political Punch, 06/20/11
Source: “Republicans Fake Democrat Retweets on Official Account,” TIME‘s Techland, 06/21/11
Image of screencap of the NRSC tweet, used under Fair Use: Reporting.
George "Loki" Williams is the owner of SocialGumbo, LLC, an online consultancy specializing in Web content, community management and social media. Loki has produced content for clients including the Open Society Institute, National Association of Broadcasters and Kaiser Permanente. He is one of the organizers of the Rising Tide Conference in New Orleans, and his work has been seen or written about in The New York Times, The BBC, Air America, and NOLA.com, among others.