More Politicians Are Tweeting. But What Are They Saying?

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Congress and social media have had a rocky relationship. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) had a popular Twitter account, including musings on everything from hitting a deer in his car to the History Channel, until his staff felt the need to rein it in and focus on policy. Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D-NY) political downfall began with a tweet. During this year’s Super Bowl, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) accidently blasted out personal tweets to all of his followers.

The list of Twitter-based foibles goes on. One might think Capitol Hill should steer clear of fast-paced, two-way communication channels. But a new report finds use of social media channels like Twitter and Facebook by Congress members has increased dramatically.

The March report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), available here, uses data from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin to track social media use of members of the U.S. Congress. It finds that, of 541 members in both chambers, the number registered on Twitter jumped from 205 in 2009 (38 percent) to 426 in January 2013 (78.7 percent). Meanwhile, 87.2 percent of all members have a Facebook account.

CRS finds that the most prolific users of social media in Congress are Senate Republicans, who sent out an average of 1.53 tweets per day. They were followed by their Democratic colleagues, who tweeted an average of 1.49 tweets per day. In the House, Republicans averaged 1.23 tweets per day and their Democratic colleagues averaged 1.09 tweets per day. Senate Republicans also posted on Facebook most often, with an average of 0.84 posts a day. Continue reading “More Politicians Are Tweeting. But What Are They Saying?”

House Asks DHS For Report On Social Media Use

House lawmakers passed an appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that includes report language calling on DHS to detail agency efforts to use of social media in disaster management.

The House on June 7 passed 234-182 the fiscal year 2013 DHS appropriations bill, H.R. 5855. The measure funds the agency and other activities at $39.1 billion for FY13, a decrease of $484 million from the FY12 budget and a decrease of $393 million below President Obama’s budget request for the agency. The Senate has yet to pass a homeland security funding bill.

Non-binding report language accompanying H.R. 5855 includes instructions for DHS to report within 90 days to House and Senate appropriators about agency “efforts to use social media in disaster response activities.” The report acknowledges that real-time information gathering is “critical” following a natural disaster, including collecting data from public social media networks.

“The Committee understands [the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)] is examining ways in which to expand the application of this type of real-time data collection through social media as well as other uses of social media during disasters,” the report says. “As social media continues to become an even more powerful tool, the Committee directs DHS and FEMA to harness and apply these capabilities in support of its emergency management mission.”

The report language follows a February House hearing by the Homeland Security, where Republicans and Democrats questioned DHS officials about agency plans to monitor social media.

Meanwhile, the H.R. 5855 report language also says funding for the National BioSurveillance Integration System, which detects and tracks disease trends in the United States, should be used to continue a slate of pilot program from FY12, including one involving social media.

Lawmakers Take Closer Look at DHS’ Social Media Monitoring

There have not been many unifying issues for House Republicans and Democrats this congressional session. But, in a rare moment of bipartisanship, members of both parties took time at a Feb. 16 hearing to raise concerns with officials from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) about the agency’s approach to social media monitoring.

The House Homeland Security Committee’s counterterrorism panel held the hearing, which sought to examine the intersection between DHS’ monitoring of social media channels and online news for real-time information on disasters and ensuring privacy for users of Twitter, Facebook and myriad other online forums.

Panel chair Patrick Meehan (R-PA) said while he understood the need for DHS to glean real-time situational awareness from social networks during a natural disaster or terrorist attack, he raised questions about the agency creating a “chilling effect” on free speech by also collecting information on the political opinions. In particular, Meehan raised concerns about DHS plans to collect information on the opinions of private citizens on government actions, including the views of Minnesota residents on plans to relocate prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to the state.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), the panel’s ranking member, echoed Meehan’s concerns. “How can DHS fully exploit the benefits and opportunities of social media without impeding on the civil rights and civil liberties of those who choose to use social media?” she asked in her opening statement. “Can DHS actively and effectively monitor social media in an open and above board way without being accused of spying on lawful activities?” Continue reading “Lawmakers Take Closer Look at DHS’ Social Media Monitoring”

Can Facebook Help Stop al-Qaeda?

Social media is not a particularly effective recruitment tool for terrorists groups like al-Qaeda and could actually be monitored by U.S. law enforcement to gather valuable intelligence on the propaganda and recruitment methods of terrorist organizations, an expert panel recently told House lawmakers.

On Dec. 6, 2011, the House Homeland Security Committee’s counterterrorism and intelligence panel held a hearing on the “Jihadist Use of Social Media,” focusing on preventing terrorism while preserving innovation. The committee assembled a panel of expert witnesses, which testified to the jihadists’ use of social media in their recruitment of aspiring terrorists, the effectiveness of said recruitment, and what the United States is doing to address this issue. The witness panel consisted of William McCants, analyst for the Center of Naval Analyses; Andrew Weisburd, director of Society for Internet Research; and Brian Jenkins, senior advisor to the president of RAND Corporation.

Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA), chair of the subcommittee, began with an opening statement in which he highlighted the committee’s recent efforts in examining threats to the U.S. homeland from around the world, specifically the operations of the Yemen al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and its high-profile media wing led by the late Anwar al-Awlaki, which produced Inspire magazine. The common theme derived from this examination was that “terrorist networks are spreading their message, recruiting sympathizers, and are connecting operationally online.”

To illustrate this point, Meehan talked about Coleen LaRose, publicly known as “Jihad Jane,” a name she used online where she became a committed jihadi, who was arrested on her return to the United States as part of a terror plot. LaRose did not receive any formal training in a terrorist camp, but in her own apartment in Montgomery County, PA, she enthusiastically posted, and commented on, YouTube videos supporting al-Qaeda, contacted other jihadis online, solicited funding, and tried to orchestrate a terror plot.

Continue reading “Can Facebook Help Stop al-Qaeda?”