10 Years of Twitter — and Political Fights on Twitter

PHOTO: DREW EVANS/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

By NATALIE ANDREWS

As Twitter turned 10 years old this past Monday, its role in political discourse is still a matter of debate.

Today, every senator and almost every member of the House is on Twitter. Bills are hashtagged. Hearings are live-tweeted. The White House, meanwhile, has an extensive Twitter operation that includes accounts for the president and other officials.

In the 2016 race, Twitter is the place where campaigns spar between formal televised showdowns. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders traded tweets Friday after Mrs. Clinton bragged of hitting one million donors — and Mr. Sanders responded that he has nearly twice as many.

Almost daily, front-runner Donald Trump makes headlines for something he said in 140 characters or less on the social -media service, whether about building the wall, bashing a presidential rival or trashing a media outlet he doesn’t like. The billionaire GOP front-runner is the reining master of the medium, with more than seven million followers. “I love Twitter…. it’s like owning your own newspaper— without the losses,” he tweeted in 2012.

Twitter’s use by politicians has long been a combination of constituent outreach and sharp-elbowed debate. From a sleepy beginning, the service has become a potent way for politicians to reach their most ardent supporters and stay in the daily conversation.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) remembers joining Twitter just before President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Her office was overwhelmed with requests for inauguration tickets that she couldn’t fulfill, so her daughter suggested that she tweet from the event. Now, she regularly direct-messages with constituents or forwards tweets to her staff.

“What Twitter is really more about for me is making sure Missourians see me as a multidimensional person,” Ms. McCaskill says. She tweets about her grandchildren, sports and notoriously tweeted about her dislike of a rape scene in the HBO series “Game of Thrones” — “disgusting and unacceptable” she tweeted last May.

“It was world wide” she says of the tweet’s reach. “I was surprised. I did not expect that.”

The first recorded mention of Twitter on the Senate floor was three years after its creation, in 2009, by Sen. John McCain. He cited angry responses from Americans to “his Twitters” over earmarks to bills and what he deemed wasteful government spending.

The Arizona Republican sends each of his tweets himself, often after consulting his staff. He calls the social network a good thing, 90% of the time.

“Some of the things people say because they are anonymous they would never say if their names were on it,” Mr. McCain says. “I will admit sometimes it’s hurtful. But over all, this has changed America and the world.”

Mr. McCain sees value in Twitter in the way it has “enabled people from every part of the world to communicate, exchange ideas, and organize movements for freedom and democracy like we’ve never seen before.”

In 2011, when he tweeted an article about the Russian election, saying “Dear Vlad, The #ArabSpring is coming to a neighborhood near you” — a reference to the upheaval that was sweeping the Middle East, in which Twitter was a major player — his office brought in a Russian interpreter to understand the flood of responses.

“He said he’d never seen so many obscene Russian words used in such a compact space,” Mr. McCain recalls.

Last week, when the White House introduced its Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, it launched a Twitter handle, @ScotusNom, and retweeted polls that showed support for giving the judge a hearing, telling the Senate to #DoYourJob.

Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch responded that “while hashtag games can be fun it’s important to understand that the Senate is absolutely doing its job.”

Twitter has made politics a more social experience, says David Karpf, an assistant professor at George Washington University who studies online political communications.

“Twitter during these moments of media spectacle is just Mystery Science Theater 3000, but everybody gets to do it,” he said, referencing the 1990s TV show that featured snarky movie commentary.

Twitter, which is used by 23% of all adult Internet users according to a Pew study last year, still has its perils, best highlighted in the 2011 sexting scandal that cost Rep. Anthony Weiner (D., N.Y.) his job. While not always career-ending, more than one lawmaker or group has had to apologize for a mistweet. The National Republican Senatorial Committee apologized this month after tweeting “Tammy Duckworth has a sad reputation of not standing up for veterans.”

Ms. Duckworth, an Illinois congresswoman who is running for Senate, lost her legs fighting in Iraq. The NRSC tweet was deleted in minutes. In response, Ms. Duckworth’s campaign launched a hashtag #TammyStands4Vets and tweeted ways the congresswoman had supported veterans.

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