Raleigh, N.C. — Twitter forces users to pare down their thoughts into 140 or fewer characters, but state lawmakers say social media helps them open up the legislative process, parsing complex policy and legislation into accessible posts that inform voters and start conversations.
Social media can keep voters updated on the daily events of the legislature, even when they’re strapped for time, said Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake.
“It’s a great way for people who don’t have the time to be able to spend following the ins and outs of issues and legislative battles to get a quick first-person account of what’s been going on in the legislature and state government,” Stein said.
Stein recalled the occasion last year when his Facebook post about new provisions in the state’s voting legislation landed on “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC.
“That was pretty amusing to see my post make it onto national television,” he said.
Social media has seeped into every layer of the lawmaking process, said Jonathan Kappler, director of state government relations for the University of North Carolina system.
“Lobbyists and those who work with the General Assembly use it to share information, to gather information and to start to try and shape the dialogue about specific issues,” Kappler said.
He said it’s important for lawmakers and stakeholders to tailor their posts to their specific audience while still casting a wide net.
“It’s trying to find that balance and share information and keep your audience and grow it so that you continue to have influence through that platform,” he said. “You don’t want to be overly selective, but that’s part of what social media is.”
Kappler noted that some public officials have landed in hot water for comments on social media, mainly on the national level, but that using social media strategically can help prevent potential missteps.
"A lot of people approach this in kind of an organic way. They don't necessarily have a strategy behind it," he said. "But I do think that you have to put a little thought in terms of how you're going to engage in that community."
As the legislature builds a digital presence by posting bills online and offering live audio streams of sessions, social media helps spread those resources to a wider audience, Kappler said.
“It democratizes the information a little bit more and makes it a little bit more accessible to the average person,” he said.
Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Mecklenburg, said Twitter is a useful tool to spread information quickly, but Facebook is more suited to starting a discussion.
“The biggest thing is the temptation to want to get into a dialogue, and (Twitter’s) just not the forum to do that,” Tarte said. “On Facebook, I do get into going back and forth in a thread, as far as conveying my positions. People will ask questions about a particular bill, the legislative process, and we try to educate and use Facebook to do that.”
Lawmakers who use social media must be conscious of what constitutes public information, he said.
“You have to use some common sense and judgment,” he said. “I probably push that envelope more than some … If people are talking about it in the hallways around the Legislative Building, then I assume it’s more or less public knowledge, and once it’s crossed from one chamber to the other and people are talking, then you’ve got to assume it’s sort of public knowledge. If it’s discussed in open committee, obviously (it’s) public knowledge.”
Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, said he generally strays from talking politics on Twitter but often shares quick information on statewide events, such as updates on Hurricane Arthur last week.
Torbett said he sometimes poses questions on Facebook to gauge public opinion and stay connected with voters.
“Sometimes I use it, not as a polling device, but just kind of to test the waters, see what people’s thoughts are about a certain issue,” he said. “That works wonders, because I’ll get people from across the vast spectrum of thought processes.”
Twitter has a growing role in the legislative process, said Anna Roberts, director of communications for House Speaker Thom Tillis.
“I think Twitter is something that our members are starting to use more,” Roberts said. “I think it’s becoming a more integral part of the whole process at the legislature.”
There are no official rules governing how members use social media, and members are not required to have social media accounts, she said.
“It’s completely up to their own discretion at this point, and I don’t see that changing,” she said.