Who’s tweeting? Lawmakers don’t say

Most lawmakers do not disclose whether they write their own tweets, according to a review of lawmaker Twitter bios by The Hill, which also finds that most members likely use a ghostwriter.

While 84 percent of House lawmakers and 93 percent of senators are on Twitter, few follow President Obama’s example in personally signing or tagging their tweets, an indication that would highlight the tweet’s authenticity.

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Only 14 members of the House and 12 senators include a line in their bios that indicate whether a tweet is written by the lawmaker or a member of his or her staff. Those numbers include two accounts that put “press” in their Twitter account name and five that credit the account to “the office of” the lawmaker. 

Only two members of Congress follow Obama’s lead in pledging to sign their tweets with their initials when they send them personally: Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

The majority of lawmakers are following in the footsteps of celebrity movie stars and athletes, who often hire assistants to tweet under a high-profile name as a means of handling their social-media brand.

Twitter experts argue lawmakers are missing out on an opportunity.

Twitter is “often squandered by using it as a PR tool that doesn’t create more legitimate communication between members and constituents,” according to John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group that saves deleted congressional tweets.

Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) said that while other lawmakers have to make a “personal decision” whether to tweet, he thinks people notice and appreciate that he writes his own because “people really hunger for authenticity on the part of their elected officials.”

Obama, who with 18 million followers is the world’s most-followed politician on Twitter, discloses whether it’s him or his staff behind his tweets.

Obama’s official Twitter account, @BarackObama, reads, “This account is run by #Obama2012 campaign staff. Tweets from the President are signed -bo.” That practice is followed by other official administration accounts, including those of Vice President Joe Biden, @JoeBiden, and the first lady, @MichelleObama.

“That was gauged as a way to be transparent,” said Ryan J. Davis, executive director of social innovation at Blue State Digital, the firm that designed the online presence for Obama’s 2008 campaign. “We definitely think that’s important.”

(Disclosure: Davis is a former contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog.)

According to Sanders’s office, including a line in the senator’s bio identifying only tweets ending with “-B” as the senator’s was a simple decision, made for clarity. Also, tweets from the senator are much more popular than those from staff.

Sanders might be on to something.

The PR firm Edelman Digital ranked Sanders the “most influential politician” on Twitter earlier this year, according to a review matrix that factored in trust and engagement.

Marcia Newbert, a senior account executive who worked on the project, said “there was no clear connection between how a member sets up his or her Twitter profile and the account’s performance.” But Newbert and three other digital strategists questioned for this story said more members should be upfront about who is sending their tweets.

“We all kind of inherently know it’s staffers manning these accounts, for the most part,” Newbert said. “[But] transparency is important.”

Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who also sends all his own tweets, said “generally it would be obvious” based on context whether the member of the office is tweeting. For example, “are they in third-person, are they in first-person, are they informal?”

There are a handful of lawmakers known for sending their own tweets, but if their only identification is context, authentic voices can get lost in the stream of tweets coming from Capitol Hill.

Himes argued Twitter is more about content than who hits send.

“If you put up a lot of boilerplate baloney on Twitter, I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with that, it’s just it won’t be validated,” Himes said. “I don’t criticize anybody for saying, ‘Great Boy Scout meeting,’ but I’m just not sure that that’s a lot of value added to anybody.”

Polis said anything tweeted under a member’s name should be “taken as if it’s from the member.”

“Most successful members on Twitter have a more personal voice on Twitter,” Polis noted. “But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a role for members who don’t want to use Twitter personally.”

For example, the office of Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) maintains accounts marked “staff” and “press” as well as one attributed to Blunt, but his office confirmed he does not necessarily write all of his tweets himself. Amber Marchand, Blunt’s communications director, separately explained that “@RoyBlunt is the senator’s official handle, and he drives the content for that account personally.”

Responding through Twitter to thousands of constituents is similar, in some ways, to how offices handle constituent mail. Staff are assigned to answer the letters sent to congressional offices, even if the answers come with a lawmaker’s signature.

Wonderlich acknowledged that it is not surprising many lawmakers treat Twitter accounts the same way they do constituent mail.

“But it’s still a bit disappointing,” he said. “I think it would be nice for them to identify who is using [Twitter].”

Davis said most Twitter users recognize that the Twitter feed of a celebrity such as Britney Spears or Justin Bieber is more PR outlet than “authentic and personal.” But he argues people expect more from officeholders.

“When you’re a lawmaker, you’re dealing with issues with a little more complexity than when your latest single comes out,” he said. “The stakes are certainly higher.”

— Jennifer Smola contributed.