TOPICS > Politics

Twitter Town Hall Showcases Social Media’s Political Potential

July 6, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In a "Twitter town hall" Wednesday at the White House, people across the country tweeted questions for President Obama to answer. Jeffrey Brown discusses the town hall and how technology is changing politics with techPresident's Andrew Rasiej, The Brookings Institution's Darrell West and The Washington Post's Cecilia Kang.

JEFFREY BROWN: For a little over an hour today, the commander-in-chief was also the tweeter-in-chief. President Obama took his latest step into new media, using Twitter to field public inquiries directly.

In the hours before the town hall began, tweeted questions for the president were rolling in, 140 characters or less at a time. That’s the format for Twitter, a micro-blogging and social networking service that was founded in 2006 and has mushroomed in popularity. It now boasts more than 200 million registered users, with the same number of tweets per day being sent, the equivalent of a 10-million-page book.



JEFFREY BROWN: For today’s event, users from all over sent in their questions. A handful were picked and then posed by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey to the president, who answered verbally without the 140-character limit.

BARACK OBAMA: You know, that’s a terrific question.

JEFFREY BROWN: Aides, however, did tweet shortened versions of the president’s responses. Many of today’s questions focused on jobs and the economy.

JACK DORSEY, Twitter: It comes from David: “Tech and knowledge industries are thriving, yet jobs discussion always centers on manufacturing. Why not be realistic about jobs?”

BARACK OBAMA: We have to be successful at the cutting-edge industries of the future like Twitter. But we also have always been a country that makes stuff.

What we want to focus on is advanced manufacturing that combines new technology, so research and development to figure out how are we going to create the next Twitter, how are we going to create the next Google, how are we going to create the next big thing, but make sure that production is here.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was the third such social media event for the president this year. In April, he took part in a town hall hosted by Facebook. And, in January, he answered video questions submitted via YouTube.

For the president and other politicians and leaders, Twitter especially has become an increasingly essential communications tool. Republican Mitt Romney used the service in early June to announce to his followers he was running for president, and then to keep them in the loop about campaign events.

And with more than half-a-million followers, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is a frequent user, sometimes posting multiple times a day. There are also of course cautionary tales, including, most recently, Congressman Anthony Weiner, whose tweeted sexual messages and photos opened him to ridicule and ended in his resignation.

JACK DORSEY: Now, our next question comes from someone you may know. This is Speaker Boehner.

BARACK OBAMA: Oh, there you go.


JEFFREY BROWN: As for today’s town hall, some of the president’s political opponents took advantage of the publicity to tweet their own challenges.

House Speaker John Boehner wrote: “After embarking on a record spending binge that’s left us deeper in debt, where are the jobs?”

The president, of course, had a ready answer.

BARACK OBAMA: Obviously John is the Speaker of the House, he’s a Republican, and so this is a slightly skewed question.


BARACK OBAMA: But what he’s right about is that we have not seen fast enough job growth relative to the need.

JEFFREY BROWN: According to the White House, more than 60,000 tweets had been sent in to the event by noon, and many more came in even as the event unfolded.

More now on the links between social media and politics, from Andrew Rasiej, an entrepreneur and technology strategist. He is co-founder of Personal Democracy Forum and the blog techPresident, which reports on how technology is changing politics, government and society. Darrell West heads the Brookings Institution‘s Centers for Governance Studies and Tech Innovation. And Cecilia Kang is technology reporter for “The Washington Post.” She was at the White House for today’s event.

And, Cecilia, I will start with you because you were there. One clarification. The questions that were coming in, how were they picked and how much do we know about whether they were filtered for content or diversity of topic, et cetera?

CECILIA KANG, The Washington Post: Well, Twitter did have the last say on what questions would actually be served up and asked to the president.

But what they did is they took pains to explain that they actually had a search algorithm as well that searched for the most common and most popular subjects and questions. And they did that by searching what kinds of questions — like, John Boehner’s, House Representative John Boehner’s question was re-tweeted and repeated so many times, and there was such a — such a fertile discussion around his question. That made his question pop to the top of the list.

So that’s how they actually chose the questions. But, ultimately, Twitter had the last say on what questions would ultimately be served and asked to the president.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Andrew Rasiej, when you look at something like this, what is the value of this kind of thing, the potential benefit for this kind of communication between a president or any political leader and the public?

ANDREW RASIEJ, Personal Democracy Forum: Well, any political leader needs to use the technologies, the communication technologies that the citizens that he represents uses.

So what fireside chats were to Roosevelt, social media has the potential of being for President Obama. And the reality of social media is, is that it creates an opportunity for a much more robust interaction and interactive environment for citizens to not only engage with politicians, but for there to be more transparency about the communication and for politicians actually to be able to listen better, to be able to hear what the constituents are actually thinking.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Darrell West, pick up — I mean, I heard that word engaged. That’s a question. How much actual engagement is there in this transaction? What are the advantages, but, also, what are the limitations here?

DARRELL WEST, Brookings Institution: There is a lot of engagement, but I think what we saw today also shows some of the limitations of social media. People were limited to 140 characters. And so the questions were pretty simple.

They lacked the nuances that you often get from a more professional media asking those types of questions. And then, on Obama’s side, his questions were his canned campaign speeches.

So, you know, there wasn’t a lot of news that came out of this. But I think what all this really illustrates is politicians and journalists haven’t really figured out how to use the social media. They could use in it in much more substantive ways than they are using it today, so — and I think that, over the long run, we will see them use in it in a more sophisticated manner.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Cecilia, you have been — you have been watching this White House with its use of social media. What do they say that they’re trying to get out of an event like this? What do they say this is for?

CECILIA KANG: Well, they want to reach more people, and as many people as they can, particularly — as they can, particularly ahead and going into the presidential election of 2012.

Twitter is a really valuable resource for them, in that people on Twitter — first of all, the platform itself is growing tremendously — 13 percent of all online users use Twitter. And that’s up from just six months ago, where only 8 percent of all online users were on Twitter.

So it’s a fast-growing platform. And the people who use Twitter are very engaged politically. And they tend to be a demographic that these voters — that the administration would like to get their attention from.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Andrew Rasiej, what leads to another question, is what is it when you — when they map the questions coming in, what does it tell us and not tell us about the pulse of America? Are we hearing — is it analogous to a poll? Are we learning something about what Americans are concerned about, or is it a very small focus group?

ANDREW RASIEJ: Well, political opinion is formed by people talking to each other, and many of them are doing it on social media.

So, for any politician to use social media, they’re actually getting a real-time view, a real-time sense of what is being discussed and what the public is thinking about or worried about. The trick is, is actually using the technology not just as a broadcast medium, as most politicians are doing, but also using it as a listening post and to really understand the dynamics of the communication process of — among people, so that they don’t — they don’t actually use it only for one hour.

I mean, frankly, the White House is struggling a little bit with 20th century communication techniques meeting up with 21st century communication techniques and staging these events, which are great first steps, but the president should really be tweeting all the time. He does occasionally, but…

JEFFREY BROWN: Tweeting all the time? I mean…


JEFFREY BROWN: … isn’t he a little busy for some — for that? Or don’t we want him to be a little bit too busy for that?

ANDREW RASIEJ: No, no, no, I’m not suggesting — I’m not suggesting that he tweets every minute of the day. What I’m suggesting is, is incorporating it into his life.

He writes letters every day. He answers the phone every day. He’s communicating. And it’s important for the president to use every available tool. But he’s not present on social media quite to the same degree as some other politicians who have learned to use in a way that allows them listen on a regular basis to what’s actually being said by the American public.

JEFFREY BROWN: Darrell West, what do you think about this question about what these questions tell us about Americans? Do we learn about their actual concerns here?

DARRELL WEST: Well, the questions that came up today are exactly the types of questions that, if you do a random public opinion survey, people are interested in: jobs, the economy, taxes, the deficit. That is the general subject matter that engages people.

So I think that what we saw today were people kind of raising the types of issues that are on the minds of the general public.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s not a scientific poll, though, right? I mean, this is — it’s whoever writes in.

DARRELL WEST: It’s not a scientific survey. We know that social media users do skew younger in general. There are older people who are signing up for Facebook that are going to YouTube and are using Twitter.

But, in general, politicians like to use social media because it allows them to expand the pool. You know, the people who use social media are not the people who watch television or read newspapers.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Cecilia, there’s another aspect to this, because you cover the technology field here. What about — what is Twitter after? This is a commercial — this is a business, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: And it’s on a very high stage on something like this. So…

CECILIA KANG: There was little downside for Twitter today. Twitter won from this.

Twitter got perhaps one of the biggest endorsement of its technology from the president of the United States, showed that really — by hosting this event, this town hall on its platform, it was an endorsement of really its clout, if you will, and how important it’s become, Twitter.

And Twitter as a private company is heading into an IPO, is going to get a lot more publicity for the company as it goes forward. And it probably will attract more users. And if Obama live tweets on the platform, as he did today, that is only more publicity and really more validation of how important the service has become.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about what the consumer has to know here? When you send out your message, your tweet, it’s out there, right? I mean, this is not a — this is not a private comment. It can be tracked.

CECILIA KANG: As one politician learned the hard way recently, it is very much public. It is permanent.

This is — you know, these things are etched in the Internet. You would think that these things kind of vaporize and go away, but what is said on Twitter, what is tweeted on Twitter, what is sent as a picture, these things are permanent records.

And so, you know, and there’s a whole sort of orchestration on how it works. It can be confusing for the average user. But I would say that the president’s move into it, sending really his second-only tweet today, is — it’s a step. It’s a first step.

But you see with many politicians heading into election getting into it. It’s only going to become more popular.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Andrew, do you think this is here — this is with us here to stay?

ANDREW RASIEJ: Well, absolutely.

And the reality of it is, is that the technology allows for a much more robust and transparent relationship, a communications relationship between politicians and voters, where they can actually see what each other is thinking, and they can actually understand whether a politician is being authentic and communicating in a way that’s relevant, and not abstract or necessarily sound-bited by traditional media.

But one other very important point, which is that Obama during the presidential campaign used social media very, very well. They raised a lot of money online. They used the Internet to help get people out to the polls and to organize. And the operative word for the president during the campaign was “we.”

And it seems to some degree that, when the president went into office, that they kind of switched a little bit to using the word “I.” And as they enter the new presidential election cycle, I think the president has an opportunity to reengage with his core constituency and show once again that “we” is a reflection of how social media can be used to build a better and more robust democracy.

JEFFREY BROWN: And a brief last word, Darrell West. I mean, that’s true for any — for all politicians going forward, right?

DARRELL WEST: It is true.

The hallmark of the current era is the age of cynicism. There’s a big gap between leaders and voters. And so the long-term potential of social media is to bridge that gap, to draw leaders, so that they can listen to people and give ordinary people a chance to engage people and explain their viewpoint.

JEFFREY BROWN: Limitations and all that you talked about.

DARRELL WEST: Absolutely.


Darrell West, Andrew Rasiej, Cecilia Kang, thank you all very much.

ANDREW RASIEJ: Thanks for having us.