A tweet from your senator or a status update on your representative's Facebook page isn't likely to have been composed solely by the lawmaker himself or herself. As with responses to constituent mail, there is usually a machine behind the Great and Powerful Oz. But who is operating the levers?
As part of a larger survey, National Journal's strategic research team asked 125 Hill staffers who said they used Facebook and Twitter whether they ever did so on behalf of their lawmakers. Those who said yes included likely suspects such as press secretaries, but plenty of less likely ones as well.
House and Senate aides who recently shared insights into their offices' social-media policies confirmed that lawmakers have varying degrees of involvement with their Twitter and Facebook operations, but rarely does a legislator just tap out a post and hit "send" from his or her phone or BlackBerry.
There are a few younger or newer members who are known for tending to their Twitter accounts and tweeting directly, such as Republican Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, but they are the exceptions rather than the norm.
Aides describe a social-media generation gap, where the older — or more "old-school" — the lawmaker, the less likely he or she is to be intimately involved in shaping his or her Twitter or Facebook persona. (There are exceptions of course. Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, 67, has served in Congress since 1989 and is one of the Hill's best-known Twitter junkies.)
"There are three groups," says one House Democratic aide, who assigns his boss to the mid-level-of-engagement camp. "There are the newer members who don't have any hesitation in doing their own postings — that probably stems from being from a recent campaign where they were very hands-on. There are members in the middle who now recognize the value of social media and are integrating it into how their office works. And then there's older members who are way behind, still don't see the value, and will probably never catch up."
The most common scenario described by House and Senate aides of both parties is a collaborative process in which the ideas for Twitter or Facebook posts may come from a variety of sources in the office: policy aides, communications staffers, staff members back in the district, and, of course, the lawmaker himself or herself.
"Twitter and Facebook goes through communications; we treat them generally like we would a press release," says one GOP Senate aide.
Often the communications team is in charge of the drafting and the posting, usually with input and oversight from policy staff. Lawmakers are commonly asked to sign off on posts, frequently making edits before they do. "Even though my boss is not on Twitter himself, he has a pretty good grasp of what works on a medium like that," the Senate aide says. Source: National Journal's Washington in the Information Age Spring 2012 survey of media-consumption habits among Washington insiders.
While the lawmaker and policy staffers weigh in on tweets when possible, the aide adds, sometimes on a well-established issue there isn't much time to hem and haw over a response on Twitter. Facebook, on the other hand, doesn't have the same immediacy; it lends itself to longer messages with more context and to narratives.
"Twitter and Facebook have such different audiences — they are really different mediums," says the aide. "Reporters gravitate to Twitter — it's better to send out a message on Twitter than a press release — whereas your average constituent is not on Twitter. Facebook hits regular citizens; that's their preferred medium."
One Senate Democratic aide also describes a collaborative approach, in which the boss doesn't actually type in any 140-character messages but does flag issues to tweet or to post on Facebook, and edits and approves final drafts before they go up. "Our digital director takes a first stab and does the clicking to send messages out, but everything goes through my boss, who is very hands-on and makes tweaks or adds before it goes out."
There are those lawmakers, typically older bulls, who have little if any involvement with social media and entrust the job entirely to their staff. But more legislators are recognizing that if they want their online voice to be a strong, authoritative one, they need to work with the rest of the team behind the curtain.