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Social Media Goes Viral on Capitol Hill

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The Obama administration, which has made social media a hallmark of its operations, continues to step up its efforts: Since October, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has hosted more than a dozen “First Question” sessions on Twitter, during which he takes questions from the public. And shortly after the State of the Union, the White House hosted four Facebook live chats with senior policy advisers and a YouTube interview with President Barack Obama.

“I think the president looks at something like YouTube as sort of an online town hall meeting,” Gibbs said during a briefing last month.

“Obviously a number of us use different types of social media like Twitter to communicate what the government is doing to the people in this country. I think it’s just another way of bringing people a little closer to the decisions that get made here and why,” he said.

But not all of our nation’s leaders are adding their 140 characters to the conversation. McConnell and Durbin have yet to enter the Twitter fray. And while Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) are active tweeters, they treat it more as an extension of traditional press efforts instead of engaging with people on a more personal level.

Ron Bonjean, who was a spokesman for then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said the “tipping point” for blogging and social media on Capitol Hill came in 2005. That was the year that Hastert started his own blog; since then, leadership offices have taken on new staff and beefed up their budgets specifically for tracking new media.

“Staffers are poring through the conservative blogs to see what is going to trend,” Bonjean said. “Those ideas often then reappear with a larger megaphone on shows with a lot of audience. If something appears on Red State, staffers are very prone to circulating it to send up those red flares.”

Case in point: When editors of the prominent conservative blog RedState criticized the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s decision to endorse then-Gov. Charlie Crist in the 2009 Florida GOP Primary over conservative Marco Rubio, NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) posted a lengthy response directly on the blog to counter the criticisms.

Simon Rosenberg, a veteran of the Clinton White House who now leads the progressive group NDN, noted how blogs and news outlets are categorized differently at the White House and on Capitol Hill. The White House has separate e-mail press lists for bloggers, and Pelosi, for one, hired a director of new media who has put together numerous conference calls and sit-downs exclusively with Pelosi and bloggers.

What is dubbed “new media” has a “very different sensibility than the traditional media,” Rosenberg said. “There are very few staffers in Washington who can do both well. They are just different animals.”

Pelosi’s point person on social media, Karina Newton, is one of those people, he said, referring to her as “the conductor of the orchestra of the Internet and net-roots world.”

It remains to be seen which party will trump the other in the world of social media, but Republican lawmakers on Twitter outnumber their Democratic counterparts 134 to 115, according to Tweet Congress, which tracks Members of Congress who tweet.

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