June 12, 2011

Social sites connecting legislators with public

One day after a 23-year-old Tucson woman received a life-saving bone-marrow transplant that had been stalled for months by legislative funding cuts, House Minority Whip Anna Tovar was there, at least in a sense.

In their usual mode of communication, Cindy Straw - Courtney Parham's mother - sent Tovar a Facebook message to update her on Courtney's successful surgery. The two began talking on Facebook in February and have been in touch online several times since the June 2 operation.

"It has touched our family very deeply to be able to actually talk to somebody that's working so diligently to try to get things changed," Straw said.

Tovar is one of many state legislators increasingly using social-media sites like Facebook and Twitter to make personal contact with constituents, solicit their feedback and announce breaking political news.

Politicians' use of social media is getting increased scrutiny, particularly after U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., admitted to sending out sexually explicit photos via Twitter. Arizona legislators' recent "tweets," or 140-character messages broadcast on Twitter, have been tame in comparison: Many have sent prayers to families affected by the Wallow Fire or posted news articles that underscore the need for certain types of legislation.

Sarah Muench, communications director for the Arizona House Democrats, said Democrats also use social media to "hold Republicans who control all of state government accountable of their actions" by informing the public about "what exactly is going on down here."

Paul Boyer, public-information officer for the state House Republican Caucus, said some of the Democratic legislators he follows use Twitter "as quite the platform to talk poorly about Republican policies."

But some social-media posts are less serious. Before Kirk Adams stepped down as speaker of the House in April to run for Congress, he responded to rumors that he would end the session in order to campaign in Washington, D.C., with a joke on Twitter. Adams created a hashtag called #startyourownrumor and kicked it off with a few of his own. The trend went viral in Arizona in a matter of hours.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, tweeted a rumor jesting that the Democratic interns were actually a failed boy-and-girl-band combo hired as cheap labor.

Adams, who has nearly 1,400 Twitter followers, was a prolific "tweeter" during the session, and he often posted from the Assembly floor. He said some of his "followers," those who signed up to receive his messages, instantly retweeted his news about bills passing or failing.

Many politicians also use social media to campaign. Adams said he doesn't intend to use his well-developed Twitter account to fundraise for his congressional campaign, although he might use Facebook.

"Each social medium has its own sort of culture and ethics," Adams said.

Adams said Twitter is also useful for "lifting the hood a little bit," so people can see a politician's personal side. For example, Rep. Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, frequently tweets about the Arizona Diamondbacks and the local restaurants he enjoys. Tovar recently tweeted about her youngest son winning a basketball championship.

Tovar said constituents who are too intimidated to call her office are usually more comfortable contacting her online. She said one man who wasn't receiving the unemployment benefits he needed found her online because he wanted to remain anonymous.

Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, said that level of comfort makes some people ruder online than they would be in person.

Gould started tweeting about three years ago when he realized someone else was posting under his name. He said the tweets were initially funny but "degraded into making fun of the Gould mustache." Twitter seized the account and turned it over to Gould, he said. He now has more than 700 followers between two accounts.

Gould said that overall, the sites are useful, but using social media as an elected official also has its downfalls. After he received a death threat through the mail at the Capitol, Gould said he stopped giving blow-by-blow accounts of his location.

by Emily Holden The Arizona Republic Jun. 12, 2011 12:00 AM



Social sites connecting legislators with public

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