Twitter: Changing politics one tweet at a time

Adoption of Twitter doesn't necessarily equal political change. Many of the politicians on Twitter aren't quite sure how to use it.

* Jennifer Leggio is on vacation

Guest editorial by Chris McCroskey, Rockfish Interactive

A year ago, Wynn Netherland and I were having a hard time finding our elected officials on Twitter.  We figured it was a problem that other people were having as well.  Wynn and I created TweetCongress, a simple Twitter list of everyone in the 111th Congress that tweets (it also lists those that don't tweet).  Within a year, TweetCongress grew from 24 members of Congress using Twitter to over 160 Congressional tweeters.

Adoption of Twitter doesn't necessarily equal political change.  Many of the politicians on Twitter aren't quite sure how to use it.  Most use it as a blasting point for their public relations department.

I would say that 90% of members of Congress ignore the best part of Twitter, which is the ability to have a conversation, albeit concise, with their voters.  No longer do politicians own the message presented to voters.  People talk and Twitter facilitates that conversation like no other medium.

Now to some good news, some politicians do get it.  Rep. John Culberson (@johnculberson) of Texas is one of the best Twitter users on the Hill.  Over 80% of the time Rep. Culberson is using the @ Reply.  This means that he is actually having a conversation with the people that sent him to Washington.  Not only does he communicate with constituents, he also lets his followers know exactly where he stands on the issues of the day.

Another great Congressional tweeter is Senator Claire McCaskill (@clairecmc) of Missouri.  Sen. McCaskill experienced a meteoric rise in followers over the past year, from a couple hundred followers in September 2008 to over 35,000 today.  @Clairecmcc may be the best communicator via Twitter on the Hill.  When you follow Sen. McCaskill you get a glimpse into her personal life as well as the work she is doing for the people of Missouri.  "Claire" is real on Twitter.  In a world full of polished, cardboard cut-out politicians in Washington, McCaskill has made an emotional connection with her followers.   When election time rolls around, Senator McCaskill will have a definite advantage over any challenger.  Her throngs of followers won't forget her name in the ballot box and I am sure a large majority would be inclined to volunteer for her campaign.

The real political change happened overseas.  Twitter provided an information flow in and out of Iran after millions of Iranians felt their votes were not counted (#iranelection).  Through Twitter the world saw images and messages from the people of Iran.  Where the media failed, Twitter prevailed.  Average citizens across the globe picked up the cause of the Iranian Opposition and kept communication lines open.  Austin Heap and friends even went as far as creating software called "Haystack" that thwarted the Iranian government's attempts at censoring Tweets.  Citizens in other countries were in effect engaging in a Digital Cold War with the government of Iran.

I recently spoke to a U.S. Department of State sponsored delegation from Moldova.  I followed the "Moldovan Twitter Revlolution" (#pman) in April when the Communist Party in that country tried to steal an election.  Most members of the delegation were reporters and told me how student leaders used Twitter to organize flash mobs in the capital that garnered international attention.

From Washington politicians to activists in Iran and Moldova, Twitter altered politics.  With the upcoming elections of 2010 in America and the spread of cheap, ubiquitous tech like smart phones, politics of the world will never be the same.

Chris McCroskey is a Director at Rockfish Interactive, a full-service interactive marketing agency located in Northwest Arkansas. Prior to joining Rockfish, Chris was active in the worlds of social media and politics and is the co-founder of Tweet Congress, a website which initially began as a grassroots effort to encourage politicians on Capitol Hill to begin tweeting with constituents. Chris is an active speaker on the topics of social media and politics and spoke at the National Conference of State Legislatures, World Affairs Council and the U.S. Department of State International Visitors Program.  Chris contributed to the O’Reilly Media book "Open Government "due out early this spring.