With the revelation of his ill-advised use of Twitter and other social media to flirt with female followers, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) has become just the latest in a line of politicians to discover that these new communications platforms have as much potential to win one embarrassment as support.
Before him, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI) tweeted details about a February 2009 congressional delegation to Iraq that were supposed to be kept secret. In August 2010, the Twitter account of Alaska Senate candidate Joe Miller emitted a tweet comparing his opponent, Lisa Murkowski, to a prostitute. And, last November, the Twitter feed of outgoing Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) inadvertently let loose with an expletive.
The question for candidates and campaigns is how to avoid embarrassment while taking advantage of the spontaneity and direct contact with the public made possible by social media. Ben Schaffer, president of Media Mezcla Campaign Engine, a New York City–based Democratic consulting firm, points out that it would be unfair to blame social media alone for Weiner’s missteps.
“There has been evidence for some time that people say weird things on Twitter, but they also say weird things in press conferences and in ads,” says Schaffer. “If you are someone who is likely to make mistakes, you are going to make a lot of them more quickly, but I don’t think there is anything inherent in Twitter that causes you to act like this.”
People think they are out of sight, no one can watch them
Steve Pearson, president of the Republican consulting firm CivicNext, observes that there has already been a trend away from candidates’ managing their own social media portals and predicts that more controls will be applied in the wake of the Weiner debacle. “They can’t be effective at what they are being tasked to do as well as narrating it while they are going along,” he says. “It’s like taking your own picture—it usually doesn’t turn out as well as when you have someone taking your picture for you.”
Still, Pearson acknowledges that a small number of politicians “really relish having their finger on the controls” of social media and that for some of them the connection they develop with their followers pays off and helps to humanize them. (It’s worth noting that Weiner was legendarily insistent on controlling his own Twitter stream, which hasn’t turned out so well for him.)
Insofar as there is a broader lesson to be learned from example of Weiner, says Pearson, it is that online interactions seem hidden and anonymous, but are in fact the opposite. “That is the irony of the whole situation,” he says. “People think they are out of sight, no one can watch them, and yet anything you do on the Internet is completely traceable and completely identifiable.”
And the chances that an unsavory or illicit interaction will be traced and identified are much higher for politicians than for the average person. After all, the New York Times reports that Weiner’s online indiscretions were sussed out by a Twitter group called the #bornfreecrew that kept track of the congressman’s followers and came to suspect that his interest in some of the women in their ranks was less than pure. On May 27, when Weiner sent the famous photo of his crotch publicly rather than privately via Twitter, the group’s leader snatched it up before it could be deleted—and the rest is history.
“Any candidate, any politician is under scrutiny,” says Pearson. “That’s something that every politician from the most outspoken and most visible to the lowest guy on the ballot has to be aware of.”