Communication Currents

Twitter and its Impact on American Governance

April 1, 2009
Digital Communication & Gaming, Political Communication

Twitter, and other forms of microblogging, represent a recent occurrence on the Internet. Microblogging allows an individual to express themselves 140 characters at a time through a website, through a program designed to access the individual's account, like Tweetdeck, or even through a mobile device, like a Blackberry. This channel also presents an opportunity to broadcast an individual's thoughts across the Internet to a group of followers.

This mode of communication is now being used by government officials to communicate with their constituents. Several of the members of Congress were twittering during President Obama's first speech in front of a joint session of Congress, a fact acknowledge by the President while he was speaking. What members of Congress twittered ranged from the mundane to the esoteric. For example, Sen. Claire McCaskill twittered, "I did big wooohoo for Justice Ginsberg," while Rep. Joe Barton twittered, “The Aggie basketball game is about to start on ESPN 2, for those of you that aren't going to bother watching Pelosi smirk for the next hour.” This new technology is shining a spotlight on Washington, its backchannel communication, and the legislative process.

Much of the information citizens receive about the system of the American government is being filtered through modern media. Alternately, government officials can now directly address their constituents through microblogging and avoid having others recraft or spin their messages.

By its very nature microblogging is a minimalist form of communication. It forces the writer to be concise in her or his word choice and development of message. The channel was also designed with very little structure, but it has robust applications. Twitter allows users to broadcast information to a large group through the posting of a website address. Twitter users can also direct followers to other media sources online or offline.

When it comes to the crafting of laws that affect the citizens of the United States, representatives and senators write a complete thesis regarding the rationale for the creation of a law and how the law is expected to be implemented. Typically, the paperwork supporting laws and the protocol involved in presenting those laws can be thousands of pages long. Speaking points supporting or opposing those laws can be dozens of pages. Twitter has a limit of only 140 characters. Those using Twitter to communicate to their constituents who are equipped to receive the messages must deal with the limits of the channel and layers of reductionism of thought and word. They may, however, be able use the medium to redirect the reader to websites or other Internet resources that can reinforce the writer's message. If a writer can effectively use hypertext in their message, he or she is able to use the power of the Internet to express in 140 characters the important parts of a large and complex bill or a vital policy discussion. 

In direct contrast to this reductionism is the idea of the American Government being mostly transparent. Open sunshine laws exist in one form or another throughout the legislative branches at local, state and national levels. These laws make sure the public can see the transactions that occur within the chambers of law. It was through the open sunshine initiatives that public services such as C-SPAN were created to give the public a view of the national decision making process. By watching C-SPAN on cable or the web, citizens are able to see committee meetings, the discussions and debates regarding bills, and other business of government. Like other performances, these meetings and discussions are choreographed in advance, and are formalized within the confines of the political machine to allow for the maximum distribution of information. On the other hand, microblogging is an informal channel designed for minimal information exchange. 

In the area of information exchange, the formal bureaucracy that is the United States Government can make it difficult, if not impossible, to find the correct information or expert in a specific field. It takes a keen understanding of the interworkings of the government to access vital information. Exposure of individual elements of the bureaucracy through a microblogging service may help an average citizen connect to a specific agency designed to deal with that citizen's concern. This microblogging service does not need to be completely open. It could be a hybrid system with an intranet service for private communication between staffers, combined with a public interface. 

The Obama administration has adapted to new communication technology more than previous presidential administrations. During the presidential campaign, Obama's campaign used the web to help raise money, develop the volunteer base and help develop a platform that fit the needs of the general public during the election and after he won. All of these online endeavors represented a homogenized, useful public interface that connected with the general public and helped develop public policy. It would be easy for this administration to include a microblogging system that would assist those inside the White House to remain in contact with other members of the staff, and create a point of transparency in the executive branch of government. 

Open sunshine initiatives and laws should be assisted by services like Twitter as those services tell when certain events are occurring, like announcing when an important vote on a motion is occurring, or they can add to the openness of a meeting by creating a public backchannel that tells what individual members of the meeting are thinking or doing. Typically such laws are designed to prevent political corruption through the careful examination of the proceedings of the legislative body. Any examination of a legislative body must include an open and clear record of that legislative body. To be an effective mechanism of openness and transparency in the government, electronic services that catalog government communication must be indexed and easily searchable to access the relevant information for the average citizen. Those services should also include posts from microblogs, as they add to the public record of the government. 

Organizations like the Open House project and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have worked to collect as much information as possible to create an electronic record of the American Government. Many of these groups search online and through electronic intranet systems to expose the inter-working of the American Government. Twitter communication adds to this record, as the information gathered from these messages can provide insight into the thought processes ofa representative or senator when they vote on an issue or discuss policy. The questions to ask are these: Will it be possible to effectively sort through the information, or does all the information become noise lost in the static? Is there a middle ground between information and static? How will our government be influenced by new communication technology?

About the author (s)

Shane Tilton

Ohio University