Associated Press file
Sunday, Aug. 24, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Pick a news conference, any news conference, on Capitol Hill, and one thing always will be there: a hashtag.
Policymakers create digital keywords to help draw attention to their issues and events, hoping they’ll live on in the Twitterverse. They place signs advertising the hashtags on lecterns and platforms so they make camera shots.
The hashtag-ification of Congress shows just how intertwined social media has become with politics and society.
“Social media’s impact on politics has eclipsed even the Internet,” writes Kerric Harvey, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, in her 2014 book, “Encyclopedia of Social Media and Politics.”
Social media has become as much a part of American politics as county fairs, according to Harvey.
Why? Because it allows politicians to talk directly and efficiently with voters. Facebook and Twitter reach thousands of people yet still feel personable. The conversational tone of social media means politicians can come across as more human than traditional media or their opponents might portray them.
Sen. Dean Heller, for example, tweeted a picture of himself with his wife, Lynne, on their 30th wedding anniversary. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was among the 21 who retweeted the picture. Rep. Mark Amodei shared snapshots of the Nevada Western movie posters he collects in his Washington office.
“Our goal is to provide as many paths as possible for constituents to interact with the office,” Amodei spokesman Brian Baluta said.
But social media also can limit a politician’s messaging: Once something is posted, the conversation belongs to social media’s users and can take on a life of its own. Comments under Amodei’s movie poster post include attacks on his immigration position, for example.
It’s also debatable just how much impact Facebook and Twitter have. Measuring social media’s influence on voters “is like trying to nail down water,” Harvey writes.
Even so, social media is gaining followers in Congress. Nevada lawmakers have 4,300 (Amodei) to 223,000 Twitter followers (Reid).
Staffers say branding messages with hashtags on Twitter is just one part of their plan to showcase their bosses online.
“It’s a matter of meeting people where they are,” said Greg Lemon, a spokesperson for Rep. Joe Heck.
What they tweet, post and share
• Spanish tweets from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Reid has one of Capitol Hill’s largest press staffs to help run his Facebook and Twitter accounts, plus a Spanish-language Twitter account, @SenadorReid. Started in 2011, the Spanish-language account allows Reid to reach a key voting demographic that he and other Democrats will need when he is up for re-election in 2016.
It hasn’t caught on yet, though. @SenadorReid has 1,500 followers, while @SenatorReid has 223,000.
• Facebook polls from Rep. Joe Heck. When House Republican leaders debated whether to authorize Congress to sue the president, Heck wanted to hear from his constituents. One way he reached out was through a Facebook poll.
It asked readers to choose between four statements: The president needs to be sued; He should be sued but this isn’t the best use of congressional time and resources; The president shouldn’t be sued; and no comment.
Naturally, Heck got a heckuva lot more comments than those four statements: 219 people chimed in, and the post received 79 likes and 23 shares.
• ICYMI from Sen. Dean Heller. Heller is getting pretty good at sound bites. From Senate floor speeches to questioning TV personality Dr. Oz, he often chooses direct over diplomatic. But many voters don’t pay attention to C-SPAN and therefore don’t get to hear Heller’s zingers. So Heller’s staff slices sound bites into YouTube videos and embeds them in emails titled “ICYMI,” Internet-speak for “In Case You Missed It.” They sometimes go out within hours of Heller’s speeches.
• #OnlyInDistrict1 from Rep. Dina Titus. Titus has successfully promoted her own hashtag, #OnlyinDistrict1.
Las Vegas is Nevada’s 1st Congressional District, and Titus is the only person in Congress who represents the city. So her team put together a hashtag that epitomizes that, #OnlyInDistrict1.
Her staff uses the hashtag for traditional events — neighborhood block parties, and nontraditional happenings, such as when staffers put a cardboard cutout of Liberace outside Titus’ Capitol Hill office. Constituents can join in by tweeting about oddball things they find in District 1, which promotes city pride, Titus spokeswoman Caitlin Teare said.
• Telephone town halls from Rep. Mark Amodei. Telephone town halls are ancient outreach tools compared with social media. But Amodei says they are the best tool to reach a wide swath of rural, Northern Nevada that isn’t necessarily connected to social media.
“It’s a format that is very cost effective,” spokesman Brian Baluta said. “It works out to be pennies per person, and it’s a nice way for Mark to get in depth on the issues.”
• Vines from Rep. Steven Horsford. Horsford, a first-term Democrat, has won awards for his digital savvy. This summer, Horsford earned first place in a contest with House Democrats, who encourage members to get more involved with social media.
Horsford’s team came up with a Vine, a six-second video, calling out Republican Speaker John Boehner for criticizing fellow Republicans for a position Boehner later took himself. It got 215 retweets on Twitter and got Horsford on House Democrats’ good side.
The telephone: An oldy but a goody
It’s 9 p.m. on a sweltering Thursday, and Capitol Hill is mostly abandoned.
Rep. Steven Horsford is still at work, sitting at a desk at the entrance to his office with his suit jacket draped over the chair. The phone normally used by the front-lines of his staff is pressed to his ear.
He’s here for a telephone town hall with voters in Nevada, and he’s getting ready for the first question.
“Hello, this is Rep. Horsford. What’s your question?”
“What are you going to do about all those immigrants on the border?” a woman asks.
Horsford, a first-term Democrat who represents North Las Vegas and rural parts of central Nevada, launches into an explanation of his immigration policy. He’ll repeat the same refrain — the influx of Central American children at our border is a humanitarian crisis, Democrats are asking Republicans in the House to bring immigration reform to a vote — several times before the night is through.
By 10:30 p.m., at least 4,000 people have tuned in. If it were a real town hall, Horsford would have needed an auditorium and big speakers to accommodate them.
“I can’t think of a more efficient tool we have to reach that many people in a short time,” Horsford said.
Telephone town halls have been around practically since there were phones. They’re old-school compared with Twitter, but staffers agree they’re still one of the best tools to reach voters 2,400 miles away from Washington.
All of Nevada’s lawmakers conduct them regularly, often later at night to accommodate Nevadans three time zones away.
Three of Nevada’s four congressional districts are so geographically spread out that a telephone town hall can sometimes make more sense than a live one.
Nowadays, the software to conduct telephone town halls is just as technologically advanced as Instagram. Lawmakers can poll listeners on issues, and staffers acting as receptionists can move callers up in the queue (and warn which to stay away from.)