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Congress to Get Informal Online Etiquette Lessons

Congressional new media experts plan to reach out to Members about Web etiquette in the wake of back-to-back embarrassing social-media-centered scandals.

But by and large, the institutional cleanup after New York Rep. Anthony Weiner (D) and then-Rep. Chris Lee (R) sent inappropriate photos over the Internet will be informal.

There is seemingly no appetite, and perhaps no way, to regulate the use of social media platforms to prevent digital indiscretions by Members — no matter how much, as Rep. Jason Chaffetz put it, the incidents “make the Congress look like idiots.”

“Don’t get mad at the medium, get mad at the moron,” said the Utah Republican, an avid tweeter and head of the House Technology Operations Team, tasked with modernizing the chamber’s technology.

He said he adheres to the old standard: “Do it as if your mother’s watching.”

“It’s just common sense,” he said. “We don’t need a rule to say, ‘Keep your shirt on.’”

The Republican New Media Caucus may suggest some iteration of that concept to staffers anyway at a June 20 briefing on social media titled “Securing Your Member’s Online Presence.” Apart from cyber-security, “social media etiquette will be discussed,” said Izzy Santa, spokeswoman for the group’s co-chairman, Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio).

The parties hand down guidelines to their Members. But neither House rules nor ethics mandates address Weiner’s preferred mediums — Facebook and Twitter — or the platform Lee used to disseminate shirtless photos — Craigslist. The policies do not mention instant messages either, which disgraced ex-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) used to send lewd messages to underage Congressional pages in 2006.

Rather, “official electronic communication content” is regulated under franking rules, which generally exist to compartmentalize political and official speech.

“There are already restrictions on content and, generally, content that’s not permissible,” House Administration Committee spokeswoman Salley Wood said. “But how do you formalize that? Do you need to add more specifics? It would look like a phone book.”

The regulations manual has already grown in the digital age to encompass email and websites. Applying rules meant to cover hard-copy mail to social media can sometimes make for an awkward fit, said staffers.

“They were folded into that slowly and painfully,” said a Republican staffer who works in digital communications. “On one hand they are official communication outlets, but on the other hand, we didn’t build them and we don’t maintain them. It’s out there and it’s free. I don’t think that there are too many situations where the rules and the House legal system is built to cover that kind of stuff.”

More awkward, though, might be trying to police nebulous and ever-changing media.

“It literally is impossible,” the staffer said. “So the option is you can’t communicate through these platforms, or you can and recognize that you’re communicating as a Member of Congress and you’ll be held accountable as such.”

Indeed, in a world where social media is used to topple autocratic regimes in the Middle East, restricting the practice among democratically elected lawmakers is not an option. Staffers said the ability to communicate with constituents is also too valuable to give up, occasional humiliation notwithstanding.

Not to mention, a rule would hardly deter someone intent on engaging in improper conduct.

“It probably couldn’t hurt, but on the other hand do you think standards would have stopped Anthony Weiner?” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “You can never really protect people if they’re going to engage in sleazy conduct.”

In a decentralized body such as the House, with 441 individual bosses under the umbrella, and 402 of them now represented on Twitter, scandals like this will probably just keep happening, staffers and experts said.

The immediacy and accountability of social media perhaps serves a useful purpose of weeding out the bad elements, then. Call it social media Darwinism: Survival of the fittest to serve.

“The pitfalls have always been there. These are just new places for folks to make mistakes,” said Nick Schaper, Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) former digital media director, who now works at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “It doesn’t create these mistakes, I think it gives them an avenue. It helps drive them out.”

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