Iowa lawmakers chart different courses on social media
Technology offers legislators new ways to communicate with constituents
By J.T. Rushing, correspondent
WASHINGTON — For Sen. Chuck Grassley, it’s a habit. For Sen. Tom Harkin, it’s a pain in the neck. Rep. Bruce Braley uses it as a tool, and Rep. Dave Loebsack is just starting to use it at all.
Social media websites like Twitter and Facebook are many things to Eastern Iowa’s congressional delegation, and they are slowly gaining popularity among them — either by choice or by force.
For various reasons, not every politician embraces the new media, especially Twitter, even seven years after it launched in early 2006.
Although the numbers are fluid, Braley is easily the heaviest user of Twitter among the four members of the Eastern Iowa delegation.
As of last weekend, he had sent out 3,690 total tweets, followed by Grassley at 2,525. Loebsack holds the fewest numbers in terms of tweets, Twitter "followers," and "likes" on his various Facebook pages — but he only began using Twitter about two months ago.
Braley told The Gazette he tweets as his schedule allows and depending on the situation, although he uses it far more when he is in Cedar Rapids.
They range from such Iowa-esque moments as the livestock alert he tweeted after seeing a cow walking toward him in the middle of the road while driving to a constituent meeting, to tweets he sent from aboard Air Force One while flying back to Washington, D.C., with President Obama after Obama visited Cedar Rapids last year.
"I thought, ‘Most people will never have this experience, so I want to share it,’ " Braley said. "It’s just one of those little things I use to connect to my constituents."
Despite Braley’s frequency, it may be Grassley, in fact, who gets the most attention on social media — he has 66,474 Twitter followers, about four and a half times’ Braley’s total. He also has more than twice the number of "likes" on his Facebook page as anyone else in the delegation.
The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee and second senior-most on the Finance Committee, Grassley uses Twitter to voice his loud and frequent criticisms of the Obama administration, among other observations.
Grassley is popular on Twitter because so many people in Washington and Iowa know he sends out his own tweets, instead of farming out the task to his staff as many senators do.
But it also has brought controversy and criticism — he has been corrected by his staff, his criticisms of Obama have sometimes gone viral, and he has even been criticized for his misspellings and abbreviations while attempting to stay under Twitter’s 140-character limit.
The senator, who is 79, said he prides himself on learning as many new technologies as possible and using them to reach out to constituents more broadly. He said some days he doesn’t tweet at all, while other days he will send out a dozen. He actually has two Twitter accounts — one for his personal use, and another for his staff. That’s because he takes a skeptical view of the practice of many senators who let their staffs tweet in their name.
"I think I’ve been the first of the senators to use a lot of these new technologies, and the advantage of Twitter is that I get to communicate right now with 66,000 people," Grassley told The Gazette.
Harkin, Grassley’s colleague in the Senate, is just the opposite when it comes to Twitter and Facebook. While he carries a cellphone, he shies away from Twitter and Facebook because he said they drain his time.
"It’s a blessing and a curse, both," Harkin said. "The disadvantage is that there’s too much information. It just bogs you down. There’s all this stuff floating at you all day long that you feel you’ve got to pay attention to ... So I don’t tweet. I especially don’t tweet nonsense. If there’s a vote, or I have something in committee, then I’ll tweet that. But that’s about it."
Loebsack brings up the rear of the Eastern Iowa delegation in social media activity, but only because he’s new to Twitter. The congressman only started tweeting this year, and he said he still prefers personal contact with constituents in Eastern Iowa.
"Nothing can replace one-on-one discussions, which is why I am back in Iowa nearly every weekend meeting with folks," he said.
Among those who think the new media is an overall benefit to a more informed and involved democracy is Timothy Hagle, an associate political science professor at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.
"It gives the members of Congress an opportunity to speak more directly to constituents — or others, since people from other states can follow them, too. Some use them for more official reasons, like explaining a vote, but others, like Grassley, will tweet about volleyball or basketball games or the time he hit a deer on the road. But it does give you an insight into their personal sides. We Iowans want to know that — we want our politicians down-to-earth."
For a congressman, there can be disadvantages to both Twitter and Facebook.
For one, since both Twitter and Facebook are free and open to the public, anyone can create an account to criticize them. That has happened to Braley on Facebook — there is a "Say NO to Bruce Braley" page that has 2,371 "likes." Another page, "@fakegrassley," attempts to correct the many abbreviations in Grassley’s tweets.