Politics & Government

Lawmakers learn power of social media, and the perils

WASHINGTON — The scandal surrounding Rep. Anthony Weiner, a brash, camera-ready New York Democrat and outspoken liberal, has plunged his career into meltdown because of sex and social media.

But has the episode caused his colleagues on Capitol Hill, where the use of social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook have become fairly routine, to worry about the downside of the new technologies?

"I haven't become more heedful," said Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. "We're constantly reminded by attack politics, 'gotcha' journalism and the 24-hour news cycle that you've got to be very careful all the time."

Indeed, political campaigns can air wider attacks, better organize supporters, raise more money and round up more voters because of new technologies.

Meanwhile, new media-savvy lawmakers such as Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat and one of Congress' most prolific users of Twitter, note that what Weiner did was just plain dumb.

He posted a lewd photo of himself on Twitter, which became public. He lied about how it got there, and then held an emotional press conference to confess.

Now he's the target of jokes and political attacks. Allies as well as enemies are calling for him to resign. The press is full of speculation about everything from the state of his marriage to his psyche.

"You certainly can't blame Twitter," she said. "He clearly knew how it worked. There is no expectation of privacy. You are posting something for all the world to see. Forever."

Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri was the first senator to include both his Twitter and Facebook addresses on his business card. Of Weiner's travails because of Twitter, he said, "We've seen all over the world, social media working in incredibly empowering ways that we wouldn't have anticipated. That's probably the discussion we ought to be having."

Congress may have the image of a mossy outpost of spittoons and endless quorum calls, but it has often been on technology's cutting edge.

True, Senate dinosaurs in the 1930s were miffed when the new telephone system eliminated the operators and forced them — egad! — to actually pick up the phone and dial their own calls.

But Congress also sent the first telegraph message in the 1840s, broadcast live hearings in the 1940s and had satellite dishes in the 1980s.

As of this week, 229 Republicans in the House and Senate, 156 Democrats and two independents use Twitter, according to the website TweetCongress.org. Posting on Facebook has become as routine as filing annual personal financial disclosure reports.

"Whenever a new form of communication has been available, members of Congress have taken advantage," said Senate Historian Donald Ritchie.

But the flip side of that, according to Zach Clayton, managing director of the Emerging Media Research Council, a digital marketing research group, is that "anywhere politicians are communicating, there is the potential for scandal."

Was Weiner too busy tweeting when technology and vanity sunk the career of his New York colleague, Republican Rep. Chris Lee, in February? Lee had posted a bare-chested photograph of himself on Craigslist and resigned within hours of it becoming public.

Technology helped doom former GOP Rep. Mark Foley of Florida five years ago when instant messages surfaced that he'd exchanged with teenage male congressional pages.

"I think there's little evidence that congressional personal misbehavior has decreased over time," said Matthew Hindman, assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. "What may have increased is the ability to document it and spread it virally."

"The Internet," he said, "never forgets."


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