Lawmakers tune in to social media

By NICOLE GAUDIANO | Federal Times

When Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont delivers a major speech, he offers his audience a menu of cyber options to learn more and aid the cause.

The independent lawmaker’s 47,000-plus Twitter followers can retweet a play-by-play from his staff, links to the speech and television interviews. More than 70,000 people who “like” Sanders on Facebook can cheer him on with comments on his page.

Recently, visitors to his official website could sign a petition to President Barack Obama saying they agree with Sanders’ speech on deficit reduction. More than 135,000 did.

Such multi-faceted approaches are becoming the norm for most members of Congress. Social media, telephone town hall meetings, e-newsletters and other tools let them connect with constituents and supporters in more ways than ever.

“It is clear to me that things like Facebook and Twitter are here to stay,” Sanders said. “They are important vehicles.”

Obama fielded questions and personally posted the first presidential tweet recently in the White House’s first Twitter Town Hall. Senators use social media to share news on everything from new legislation to daily life. And House members are joining new-media caucuses that offer training and share best practices.

“You have to go where the people are, and right now, they’re in many different places online,” said Ian Koski, communications director for Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware.

Some lawmakers have turned social media into a competition.

House Republicans held a six-week contest in the spring to see who could get the most new Facebook friends, Twitter followers and YouTube subscribers. Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana took first prize: an iPhone.

Senate Republicans and Democrats competed for viewers in their “You Tube Townhall” initiative, asking Facebook followers which questions they’d like answered.

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