Banning Twitter in Politics is Backwards Thinking

There have been many cases of political legislatures banning the use of Twitter during meetings, apparently in an effort to reduce distractions and get more out of the politicians themselves. This is an extremely patronizing and limited way to engage with new technology, and will only result in a step backwards for those legislatures – and is really only a temporary measure against the inevitable adoption of Twitter, in the end.

The Boston Herald reports that the Massachusetts legislature has banned the use of Twitter by politicians. The ban specifically bars anyone in the legislature from tweeting from their office computers.

Politicians are apparently divided on the ban: Sen. Jamie Eldridge is quoted as saying the ban is “silly”, while Sen. Robert Hedlund thinks “This place has enough distractions already,” and is for the ban.

However, Hedlund’s subsequent comment deserves a mention: “There should be more sites that are blocked. We should also ban solitaire, Bejeweled and Farmville.”

And herein lies the problem. Too many people today still see Twitter as just a time waster, like online games. Sure, playing Farmville is not likely going to help push your political agenda forward; but contacting your constituents and polling them about a new bylaw probably will.

Twitter is not just something that sucks time from public officials. It has emerged as one of the foremost ways to connect to a large group of people – your constituents. There is perhaps no simpler, more popular method of interacting with voters than by creating and using a Twitter account.

Twitter is, no doubt, just a tool. And as such, it can be misused. There are likely some legislators who would waste time browsing trending topics and following celebrities on Twitter during work hours. But it’s my guess that there are even more legislators who would like to use Twitter as part of their daily work lives, updating people on new legislation, listening to what the voters have to say, and staying current in local and national political affairs.

Twitter can do all of this and more. By banning it from public office, legislators are cutting themselves off from one of the most powerful new media tools today.

The thought that Twitter is just another time waster is the first thing that needs to be rectified. Those politicians who are using Twitter effectively need to be more vocal about its benefits, and they need to be pointed to as examples when propositions like banning Twitter come up. Even the President is using Twitter to engage with voters, by crowdsourcing questions to answer post-State of the Union.

Twitter also needs to be disentangled from the “social network” paradigm. It is not a friend network like Facebook. It is an information network, one in which socially-vetted content is shared between people, with more emphasis on sharing than updating.

Twitter is a powerful tool that politicians can harness, and a ban will only last so long. As more politicians start using Twitter in their spare time, they’ll begin to see how useful it is for connecting with the people. I expect this ban will be lifted in a few weeks or months, and Massachusetts legislators will be able to join the rest of the nation’s politicians in using Twitter to conduct town hall meetings, poll the public and connect with citizens.