Twitter: From Infancy To Political Powerhouse

Five years ago, Twitter was hardly a blip on the political radar. Now, it's a social media giant. President Obama recently urged college student to take to Twitter and pressure their representatives on student loan interest rates. Host Michel Martin discusses the role of Twitter in politics with NPR's Don Gonyea and SocialFlow's Frank Speiser.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll hear from some of our youngest listeners from across the country to tell us what's fun about being five. You might have noticed already that in honor of our fifth anniversary on the air, we're reflecting on other people and things that are also five, and we realize that when TELL ME MORE started five years ago, Twitter was just a little baby. Now its voice is heard loudly around the world by letting other people share their thoughts - in 140 characters or less, of course.

It's playing a huge role in politics, both here and abroad. Last year, for example, Twitter was credited with helping organizers overthrow long-entrenched governments in North Africa, and just last week, President Barack Obama urged college students to take to Twitter to pressure their congressmen and women about student loan interest rates. Here it is.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Tweet them. We've got a hash tag. Here's the hash tag for you to tweet them. #DontDoubleMyRate.

MARTIN: All this tweeting, especially the political kind, has changed the lives of both of our next guests quite a bit. NPR's Don Gonyea is a national political correspondent. He's got thousands of Twitter followers, but it's some of those incoming tweets from places like the White House and political campaigns that he really has to watch out for.

We're also joined by Frank Speiser. He is the cofounder and CEO of SocialFlow. That's a company that helps people figure out when and how to tweet, and his company apparently is advising some presidential candidates, but for confidentiality reasons, we can't say who. We'll try to tweet it out of him, but I don't know how successful we'll be.

But thank you both so much for joining us.

FRANK SPEISER: Happy to be here.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Great.

MARTIN: Now, Don, I'll start with you because you've been covering politics for a long time, but as we said, Twitter only launched in 2006 and you said that there was a moment when you kind of realized the impact that Twitter was having on your life.

GONYEA: And it was in one of those races that didn't get a great deal of attention. It was for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee. And I'm in this ballroom watching the seven, eight - I forget how many now - candidates give their speeches and there's ballot after ballot and I'm following all of the other campaigns, all of those who are running for this office on Twitter. And I realize I'm getting these tweets that two of the candidates, Saul Anuzis and Ann Wagner, just came out of a room together, or that this meeting was taking place. Other reporters were sharing it.

And it suddenly gave me not just kind of a three-D, four-D view of the event that I was covering in Washington in person, but it made me realize I would be missing a ton if I wasn't monitoring this Twitter feed in addition to what I was looking at right in front of my eyes.

MARTIN: And it's also true, isn't it, that the White House, which is an institution, is also heavily dependent on Twitter?

GONYEA: Absolutely. And the White House has had this way of notifying the people in the White House press corps of events, of schedules, of announcements. And back in 2009, the press secretary at the time, Robert Gibbs, announced the delay of a trip to Asia on Twitter only, and there was this uproar. And I remember kind of thinking, they can't do this. That's just not an efficient way to get the word out, except now I look back at those, you know, two, three years ago, it seems absurd that we complained because we all just know this is another way they are going to communicate, because how could they not.

MARTIN: And perhaps it is more efficient, which brings me to Frank. So help us put Don's experience with Twitter into context. What's your sense of how and why Twitter became such a crucial communications tool in politics and government?

SPEISER: Well, Twitter started off as a way to sort of keep groups of people abreast of what you were doing and - but I think you're starting to see a shift now where people use it to test out positions and find out sort of where the public stands so they know, you know, what they can use and what they can message, you know, as they're crafting their campaigns in the next election cycle.

MARTIN: I understand that you also have corporate clients like the Washington Post, Pepsi and National Geographic and you try to take a strategic approach toward deciding when to tweet things and when not to tweet things. I'm just trying to figure out what would be the standard.

SPEISER: That's a great question. You can't always mandate what your audience is talking about. You have to listen and see what they're engaged with now contextually to know what's going to resonate.

If people aren't willing to engage with you or act, you're not going to get much mileage for your message.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about Twitter and its effect on politics with NPR's Don Gonyea. We're also joined by Frank Speiser of SocialFlow. That's a company that helps people figure out when and how to tweet.

You know, Don, I'm wondering, in the universe of political figures with whom you cover, I'm wondering what are their real feelings sort of about this. Because there have already been examples where political figures have gotten in trouble because of things that they've tweeted. I'm thinking about Newt Gingrich calling now Supreme Court Justice - then nominee - Sonia Sotomayor a racist. I mean, there's just something about that - the brevity of the communication that seems to me that would really lead - could really lead to some problems, so...

GONYEA: The trick for them is to figure out how to harness it. At first it seemed like they approached it almost as if nobody was really going to see this or it's a different world so we can be a lot more casual. You're now seeing the traditional rules being applied to this kind of communication as they understand it more.

MARTIN: But is it - are they mainly using it, as Frank was suggesting, as a kind of a way to - for actions, like go do this, or this thing is happening right now, or to send messages out?

GONYEA: All of the above, but they're doing it to build community as well. If you follow us and we follow you, we're all part of this together and this is what we're doing.

MARTIN: Frank, is there anybody you would suggest not tweet? Just don't this. You shouldn't do this. Not for you.

SPEISER: Well, you have to be careful that you're sort of in line with the message of the campaign. I would say, you know, family members outside of the immediate family members, like spouses, should probably refrain from tweeting because you don't want to be brought into the discussion and used against the candidate, although Ann Romney's tweet was a successful case where, once she tweeted, mentions of Mitt Romney went from about 17 per every 10 minutes to about 40 right after that tweet. And what it did was it centered the discussion on Twitter for Republicans.

Now, Obama's White House is very good at using social media, but I think that tweet was the one that let the Republican establishment know that Twitter was now a viable place to have a discussion and to sort of engage, you know, there.

MARTIN: So, Don, I'm putting you on the spot here. You said initially how, for example, particularly when the White House tweeted some vital information, you were sort of outraged at first because you're thinking, what? Is there any sense of what's the next wave? What's the next thing that's going to be the thing, you know, four years from now, five years from now?

GONYEA: I don't know what the next thing is, but I do know that I will be less cautious in embracing it and at least trying to figure it out. It took me a long time. In 2008, Twitter existed, but we didn't really know about it and we didn't use it covering the '08 campaign. In 2010, it was very helpful on the campaign. It was like, oh, I can get this new information. I can be guided to these other stories.

In 2012, it's indispensible. I don't if it then gets replaced by something, but the lesson for me is get on top of this stuff fast.

MARTIN: Don Gonyea is a national political correspondent for NPR. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios to help us celebrate our fifth anniversary on the air. Don, thank you.

GONYEA: Happy Anniversary. Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you. Also joined by Frank Speiser. He is the cofounder and CEO of SocialFlow. That's a company that helps people figure out when and how to tweet and he tells us he's advising a number of candidates, but he won't tell us who, citing confidentiality agreements. But he was in our New York bureau.

Frank, thank you so much for coming by.

SPEISER: Thanks a lot.

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