If politics is war, then Twitter is the neutron bomb. Politicians are engaging in hashtag warfare to stake out positions and target opponents without ever talking to a reporter or entering a TV studio.
You know you have a powerful weapon, says The Washington Post, when the President of the United States incorporates hashtags into his speeches, as he did last week — #dontdoublemyrate — in pressuring the GOP-led House to block an increase in student loan interest rates. After whipping up a student crowd in Chapel Hill that chanted the hashtag, there were almost instantaneously 20,000 tweets with the hashtag.
Within 45 minutes, House Speaker John Boehner responded, using the hashtag, blaming Democrats for the student loan rate increase. Conservative groups seized on the hashtag to rip Obama over gas prices and lingering high unemployment rates, a risk you run in hashtag warfare.
Ann Romney chose Twitter to respond to criticism about her being a stay-at-home mom. Her tweet — "I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work." — reframed the conversation in thousands of retweets. Critics changed the subject.
Twitter-bombing isn't just an American political phenomenon. It played a huge role in the Arab Spring upheavals. Reportedly the new president of Chile instructed his cabinet ministers to tweet to build grassroots support for his new policies.
Facebook has tons more users, but Twitter has become the go-to place to find out the latest news. That is just the kind of battlefront that attracts political operatives. Shots fired on Twitter wind up ricocheting on Facebook and, ultimately, populate searches on Google.
Operatives love Twitter because they don't have to tap their fingers while waiting for news cycles, direct mail delivery, TV ads or even the minimal efforts of an email blast.
But it isn't just the speed that creates the attraction. "Twitter has also changed the tenor of the debate," writes Karen Tumulty of the Post, "with candidates and campaign operatives posting edgy things that they would not likely dare to posit if, say, they were sitting in front of a television camera."
Some of this amounts to the war equivalent of inside baseball. Tumulty notes Eric Fehrnstrom — the top Mitt Romney advisor made legend by his Etch-A-Sketch quip — and David Axelrod, Obama's long-time political swami, have an ongoing Twitter feud, which has included snipes about how their respective bosses transport their dogs.
But Twitter isn't a smoked-filled salon. Everybody with a point, jab or photo can join in.
Even though the Obama team is credited with running a technologically savvy campaign in 2008, it didn't use Twitter. Tumulty says reticence continued when Obama became President because of public records laws. and a worry about the freewheeling environment on Twitter.
However, when they saw White House reporters using Twitter to tease their followers, Obama and his team followed suit. Presidential Press Secretary Jay Carney now has 292,000 Twitter followers. His press briefings spread a lot farther and a lot faster these days.