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Changing Policy

Online social-networking sites have influence on the political process

by Rochelle F. H. Bohaty
April 20, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 16

Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN
Influential political figures use their phones to post updates on social-networking websites.
Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN
Influential political figures use their phones to post updates on social-networking websites.

IN WASHINGTON, D.C., Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and other electronic social-networking tools have quickly become part of the daily grind. They are transforming how people communicate and how information is disseminated. And they are also becoming influential forces in the political process.

It wasn't long ago when it was just the 20-something crowd that was connecting through such social-networking sites, but now a wide and growing age demographic is on board. Participants who use these largely unvetted, self-publishing sites, beyond the general public, include elected officials and groups such as nonprofit organizations, industry trade associations, and congressional committees.

The more deft adopters of these tools and online forums are learning how to use them to influence government policy. The power of these new media resides in their ability to make information more widely available more quickly than other forms of media. A recent visible and hugely successful deployment of social media was demonstrated by Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Campaign workers used these sites to share information on Obama's platform, but they also leveraged them as a tool to organize and motivate people to take action—to pass information to friends, volunteer for the campaign, and vote for Obama.

With a similar goal of getting information out, congressional committees such as the House Committee on Science & Technology have also joined the social-networking wave.

"I believe government works best when it is transparent and information is accessible to all. I want to ensure that the public can easily keep tabs on what the committee is working on," says Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Science Committee. "This is another tool to help make government work better for the people we are serving."

THE SORT OF INFORMATION shared by committees on these social networks isn't particularly new, but those who have joined the networks of members of Congress and their staffs are privy to what's happening in the government in an inside sort of way that hadn't been so accessible in the past. Along with this access, of course, comes a relentless and eminently ignorable barrage of updates on everyday activities, such as when staffers brush their teeth. And the usual political spin is ever present.

More and more, congressional members and staff, as well as reporters and lobbyists, post status updates to their Facebook profiles or "tweet" in real time—that is, post what essentially is a sound byte on Twitter—during congressional hearings or other important meetings. For example, several members of Congress including Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) twittered from the floor of the House chamber during the President's congressional address in February. The multitasking that this requires was not lost on late-night comedians.

The ability to quickly get information out through social-networking sites can alter the legislative playing field and force Congress to be more open about their actions and intentions.

Nonprofits and activist groups are also using electronic networking tools to try to shape policy. For example, the American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN, uses these social-networking sites as a way to call members to action.

Bradley R. Smith, manager of ACS's Office of Public Affairs, tells C&EN that he uses sites like Twitter and Facebook to encourage members to contact legislators. A recent post by Smith asked members to help save the Joseph Priestley House in Northumberland, Pa., a museum that is part of U.S. chemical history (C&EN, April 6, page 9).

Smith says that when he uses social-networking sites, he gets better participation than when he relies on standard e-mail blasts. "It is too easy for people to just delete an e-mail in a crowded inbox," he says. Spam filters may also limit the number of members he can reach via e-mail, he notes. Social-networking sites offer a way around these obstacles.

Another nonprofit group that is using social networks is Greenpeace. Recently, the activist group rolled out a campaign to influence federal chemical security regulations. Although the organization used traditional e-mail messages and a blog to kick off its campaign, it also rolled out a video titled "24:00: Can You Outrun a Chemical Catastrophe?" that others can post to their favorite social-networking sites. After watching the video, supporters can add their names to the "Do Not Kill List," a petition that will be delivered to Congress in hopes of convincing members to support a chemical security bill that would require chemical facilities to use less-toxic chemicals in their processes.

From a distance, these Web-based social-networking sites may seem silly or insignificant. But these new social media are unlikely to come and go like a fad. They appear to be remaking the way people communicate. Although these new outlets will never replace face-to-face communication, they can be used as tools to motivate people to act.

A recent factoid in the Express, a free, abbreviated newspaper published and distributed by the Washington Post, states that the average Facebook user has 120 "friends." A multiplicative effect can quickly take place: One Facebook posting can reach an average of 120 people, each of whom then can pass the message to another 120 people (without overlaps, that's a total of 14,400 people), and so on.

Electronic social networks provide a new communication power to individuals and institutions that already is changing how government policy is made, which means—like it or not—it already is changing the world.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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