Utah’s Congress members all over the map on Twitter
By Emily Andrews
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published May 01 2013 01:01AM
Washington • Rep. Jason Chaffetz snapped a photo of La Dolce Vita and proclaimed to about 30,000 Twitter followers that it’s the "Best Italian food in Provo," prompting one person to ask for a recommendation.
Chaffetz’s immediate reply: "Meat calzone and lots of bread."
Just a few hours earlier, Rep. Chris Stewart tweeted a graphic boasting how he spent his congressional break — logging 2,500 miles and seven town hall meetings.
Moments later, Sen. Mike Lee continued his fight to block a gun-control bill from reaching the Senate floor, tweeting, "We have been voting on and debating guns for weeks."
With members of Congress, there’s no consensus on how to use Twitter — but for politicians, having a social-media presence is almost as essential as having a phone number. More than 90 percent of the lawmakers have joined Twitter to stay connected to loyal supporters, build a global audience and bypass pesky news reporters.
Among the holdouts is Rep. Rob Bishop. His staff has set up an account @RepRobBishop — but he’s never used it.
"I’m unaccustomed to it," he said. A former history teacher, Bishop prefers to respond to Utahns over the phone. "It’s much more satisfying in getting answers and being able to talk to people," he said.
About 30 other members of Congress have yet to send a tweet, according to Tweet Congress, which tracks how lawmakers use Twitter.
Hatch on Twitter • Sen. Orrin Hatch is Utah’s most recognizable politician and boasts the state’s largest following on Twitter, though he doesn’t tweet himself. His office uses multiple Twitter accounts each with a different purpose: an official account for press bits, one for his work on the Senate Finance Committee, one for his political action committee and his @OrrinHatch personal account, which has the biggest audience. And then there’s his staff, taking to Twitter on their own accounts where they often defend their boss against critics.
At the other end of the spectrum, Chaffetz regularly churns out real-time updates written by the congressman himself — and they’re not just restaurant reviews.
He was Utah’s first member of Congress with a Twitter account, registering @jasoninthehouse in December 2008, shortly after winning his first election.
Chaffetz uses Twitter to tout his legislation, spread links to news articles he likes and he even took followers on a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border, sending out photos snapped on his iPhone of smuggled drugs and broken fences.
"I like to do it myself. It’s not something I delegate; staff doesn’t get to touch it," he said.
"The people of Utah didn’t hire me to go hire some spokesperson. I think it should be me, directly."
Chaffetz uses Twitter to make politics personal — mixing in policy matters with personal quips about, among other things, his favorite TV show, "Duck Dynasty."
Having such an outgoing social-media persona isn’t easy for image-conscious members of Congress — and even more so for a freshman.
Stewart, Utah’s newest member of Congress, is still building his official @RepChrisStewart presence after House rules required him to ditch 2,000 campaign followers.
He says he prefers to play it safe on Twitter, limiting his tweets to strictly business.
"I’m really careful because you hear all these stories about saying stupid stuff on Twitter," Stewart said. "We’re not as sexy as some people are, but I think we’re appropriate for an official Twitter or Facebook page."
Safe, yes; bland, no • Going the safe route might be the way to avert a social-media scandal, but blandness isn’t necessarily rewarded, said Paul Levinson, a professor of communications at Fordham University.
To use Twitter effectively as a politician, Levinson said the 140-character messages need to cover many bases — ranging from the funny and personal to serious policy matters to engaging with constituents through questions and answers.
"If you play it so safe that you’re boring and your tweets lack personality," Levinson said, "Twitter isn’t going to help you."
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, did everything Levinson suggested and built a loyal following with unique, personal tweets about family life and his own worldly observations — but after some ridiculed him for his liberal use of slang abbreviations, Grassley changed course.
"I think it’s a misunderstanding of what people thought my purpose was. And then, I was trying to abbreviate as much as I could, and I think people thought I didn’t know how to spell, so I try not to abbreviate as much anymore," Grassley told Buzzfeed.
One of those tweets with an indecipherable abbreviation came in January when Grassley wrote: "On way to church 2day in Iowa I saw dead deer along road reminding me of close call I had. So many deer dead tells me Iowa needs longer cson"
Although he quickly deleted it after just two minutes, the Sunlight Foundation archived the tweet in an online database dubbed Politwoops.
All six of Utah’s members, along with Gov. Gary Herbert, former Democratic Senate candidate Scott Howell and former Gov. Jon Huntsman have tried to undo a tweet — although most were just retweets from other users.
Former Republican congressional candidate and Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love had her own brush with deleting a tweet when a staffer used her official account to take a jab at Hatch — and quickly had to apologize to the senior senator.
Lee on Twitter • Lee, Utah’s junior senator, has the state’s most aggressive social-media strategy, trying to push his agenda and bypass traditional news channels.
"It doesn’t require any intervening medium, so you can speak directly to constituents that way," Lee said. "Never has it been so easy or inexpensive for someone to speak to so many people."
Lee’s office says the senator is wary of using social media as a platform for airing personal information — followers will find only official business on his account, such as political battle cries and pleas to his supporters, like the #protect2A hashtag used to tout his support for the Second Amendment and opposition to gun-control legislation.
His spokespeople also have official accounts and have been known to get into public disputes with liberal columnists as a way to argue their case.
You won’t see any arguing from Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, on Twitter. He uses it mostly to thank people he’s met and to catch up on the news, though he occasionally likes to use it to pose a question to his more than 6,000 followers.
"What’s kind of interesting is asking more of an open-ended question — What should be in the budget? What do you want to hear in tonight’s State of the Union?" Matheson said.
Opening up the Twitter dialogue makes citizens feel like they have an influence in politics, Levinson said. And politicians are checking regularly to see what people are tweeting about them, making it one of the fastest and easiest ways voters can petition their representatives.
"It gives constituents a chance to ask their representatives questions," he said. "That’s an extraordinary development."