President Obama made history yesterday by becoming the first President to tweet live at a nationally televised event. But does one tweet – or even a complete Twitter townhall — mean the President is truly communicating openly and fairly with the American public?
The Twitter Townhall hosted by Twitter and the White House yesterday was a botched attempt to suggest that President Obama is truly reaching out to everyday Americans on their level. Judging by the small selection of questions — one of which came from Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), another from a popular columnist and even one from the President himself — and his choice to answer users’ questions via video rather than keypad, it is clear this event was merely theatrics.
Many active, engaged and influential citizens in America use Twitter to speak out and become real time citizen reporters of daily events. But the White House isn’t fooling anyone into thinking they allow an “unprecedented level of openness in government” with these type of events.
The President of the United States cannot, and probably should not, devote the same time to social media. But his staff serves as his representative on the @BarackObama and @WhiteHouse Twitter accounts. However, those accounts have hardly interacted with other Twitter users in any meaningful way. In fact, the Obama account’s only interaction that wasn’t a press release was one Follow Friday (#FF) when they simply promoted their own press staff. This does not equate to interaction or open lines of communication with the public at all.
Additionally, The White House attempted to ramp up its Twitter presence by hiring a director of progressive media and online response—but as Robert Bluey reported yesterday – @jesseclee44 has used his $72,000 taxpayer-funded salary in large part to target conservative critics instead of engaging with the millions of other Twitter users who raise issues such as extended unemployment, high gas prices and burdensome government regulations.
Yesterday’s questions with the President offered no chance for interaction or follow-up with users. In fact, the follow up period consisted of Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder, merely reading statements that largely agreed with the President’s position on most topics. On to of that, Obama blatantly mislead viewers with answers that just didn’t add up. For example, he delivered seriously faulty math regarding the nation’s defense and education budgets. You can read more about that in a Heritage report from earlier today.
A main goal of the Twitter platform is interaction, thus the “social” in social media. Were the President’s staff to spend a little time following & communicating with citizens who live outside the D.C. beltway, they might learn something new. They might hear from the six in 10 Americans who favor increasing offshore oil drilling and oppose his burdensome moratorium, or from parents who want to pick the best schools for their children without being penalized for having a low income.
Most people knew this Twitter town hall was another Obama campaign show. Many of the tweets submitted with #AskObama—the tag indicating questions for the town hall—were simply unserious. Yet, the White House counted them all up equally and bragged of the engagement with hundreds of thousands of people.
The questions “So there is this girl that is kinda into me, but Im not really sure its complicated. What should i do?” and “If Dumbledore & Gandalf battled Voldemort & Sauron, who do you think would win and wouldn’t it be awesome?” are probably not examples of a serious White House engagement. These users astutely understood that the President would not really be engaging with them.
There’s more to Twitter than just checking a box. There are real people on the other end who are active often, powerful messengers. Conservative activist Nansen Malin (@Nansen) has 315,414 followers, but how likely was it that her question would get asked at the President’s town hall? Her questions were retweeted by others hundreds of times, but all were ignored by the White House. And that is just one example.
If the White House wants to “do Twitter”, they should embrace it for what it is – responsive, genuine and interactive. They should follow up with users who submitted honest and serious questions yesterday that were retweeted by hundreds of users. They should capitalize on it to communicate more openly with Americans finally begin fulfilling a long shelved promise of transparency.