Does Using Twitter Make the White House “Transparent”?

The White House is stepping up its social media presence – possibly in response to the strength of Republicans on Twitter and elsewhere online – by holding Twitter question periods. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs answered a questions specifically about Twitter and the administration yesterday – but his answer leaves some thinking the While House just doesn’t get it.

Despite the wild success that Obama had using social media in the 2008 elections, the While House has been comparatively mute online since the inauguration. Obama does do a weekly YouTube address and their Twitter account is active, but the administration has taken a step back from their revolutionary pre-election stance towards social media – likely, and understandably, to focus on other things.

However, Robert Gibbs has been part of a recent effort to breathe new live into the administration online. He has been calling for questions on Twitter pretty regularly this month, answering two questions two to three times a week via a video response. In these First Question segments, Gibbs and his team choose two questions submitted via Twitter using the #1Q hashtag – the ultra-short hashtag showing that someone in the administration understands the restrictions that 140-characters put on Twitter users.

The effort has paid off, and is getting quite a lot of media attention. While Gibbs has been answering Twitter-submitted questions regularly for the past month now, he answered a question pertaining to Twitter itself yesterday that shows an eagerness to have an online presence, but perhaps a little nativity about what it actually means.

The Twitter-related question came from @drmikehunt:

“@PressSec: Is social networking like Twitter having a significant impact your role or on the Presidency? If so how? Is it a good thing? #1Q”

And here’s Gibb’s response:

“[Social networking] is a good thing – people like you can write questions of me or of the president and have somebody answer them directly for you. The president campaigned on an open and transparent administration, and it’s clear that the ability for citizens people of this country to directly question those that work in the government is an obvious and good thing. The simple availability of information for people to make decisions and to understand the decision-making of this administration and this president is absolutely a good thing, and we’ll continue to do it. Thanks.”

It’s great to see the Obama administration embracing Twitter as a tool for two-way communication with US citizens. However, some are criticizing Gibb’s response as wrongly equating social media with transparency.

The Heritage Foundation blog notes that:

“…the occasional tweet or YouTube video does not equate to “transparency.” …Twitter is a vehicle for information; a means to an end. Its use is by no means synonymous with releasing more information in a timely manner to allow for a more informed electorate.”

Twitter can indeed be used for any number of things – after all, it is only a tool. Businesses can broadcast sales and advertise using tweets, or they can use it for a dialog with their customers, just as government can use it to spew propaganda (like many say the North Korean Twitter account is used for), or engage in two-way communication with citizens.

It’s commendable that the Obama administration is turning to social media to attempt to bring more transparency to the White House, but transparency must occur at all levels – not just by answering four 140-character questions via Twitter each week.

The First Question initiative is a step in the right direction, but we’ll need to see more from the administration for us to truly believe they are being transparent while using social media.

You can watch Gibb’s response to Twitter questions at the First Question website.