The explosion of social media has enabled government officials to share more information than ever before with the stroke of a thumb on a phone, but the boost in communication has raised more questions and security concerns than can fit in 140 characters.
In the past two years, websites such as Facebook, Twitter and the photo-sharing site Flickr have empowered lawmakers to discuss experiences that were once shrouded in secrecy, such as Congressional delegation trips to hostile nations and war zones. But the line between what is appropriate to share — and when — has become increasingly blurred, and by and large, there is no official or monolithic guide regulating social media use for Members and their staffs.
“This has always been a problem, and it’s probably becoming more of a problem with the advent of real-time communication,” a former senior Defense Department official said about the use of social media. “And this obsessive-compulsive desire people have to share every minute detail of their lives, even it when it goes against common sense, like protecting their own security.”
This lack of precedent or rule has tested the boundaries on how the mainstream media can report on events that once were unreportable in real time and has left some communications staffers scrambling. In February 2009, then-House Intelligence Chairman Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) live-tweeted a CODEL’s travels through Iraq. Last April, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul posted photographs to its official Flickr page of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in Afghanistan with a Senate GOP delegation, breaking the news that he was there.
And last week, a top House Republican leadership aide posted photos to his Twitter account of a government plane with its tail number visible, as well an image of a flight route from Istanbul to Doha, Qatar.
According to TweetCongress.com, 157 Democrats, 228 Republicans and two Independents have Twitter accounts. The vast majority of elected officials have Facebook pages. But interviews conducted by Roll Call with multiple government agencies and Congressional offices with Members who travel with security details indicate that the social media policies are often left to be shaped by individual offices with almost no specific guidance.
Most Congressional aides, who requested anonymity in order to discuss delicate security questions, said the biggest priority when their bosses travel to foreign countries is ensuring that their destinations are not announced in advance. Many press teams will release information once a lawmaker has left a city or has returned to the United States. Last week, for example, staffers for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) posted blog entries to speaker.gov about his trip to Brazil, but the posts were not made in real time from his location.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.