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Political Lowe-down: The Twitter Transformation

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MADISON -- Social media has had a starring role in Wisconsin's political drama for the last year. In the historic recall campaign, it has become one of the key tools for organizing Democrats, fundraising for Republicans and communicating with voters of all types.

In some respects, the Twittersphere as it's often referred to is a vast ocean of banality, where you can find such indispensable insights as to what David Hasslehoff is currently listening to on the radio, or that Vanna White has discovered how to make the "smiley face" emoticon.

Suffice it to say, the Twittersphere is open to anyone with a computer and something to say, regardless of whether what they have to say has any weight or merit. Twitter has some very real, very impactful uses -- one of them is political communication. In the recall campaign, it has proven to be at least as powerful a source of information as television itself.

The recall election in Wisconsin is truly the first election where everyone's a pundit, and the candidates and the campaign are just a click away. "Social media is right at the center of the recall movement. The movement against Scott Walker wouldn't have been as successful and wouldn't have been done without social media," Wisconsin Democratic Party spokesman Graeme Zielinski said.

In the social media world, campaigns and candidates are no longer bound by the constrictions of TV ads and news reports. In fact, the 24-hour news cycle has now become the 24-second news cycle. "Now, the news cycle is every moment, because within an hour, you can have so many things happen," UW-Milwaukee Professor of Governmental Affairs Mordecai Lee said.

Twitter now has 100 million active users -- 10 times more than when President Barack Obama became the first national politician to fully harness its power in his successful 2008 campaign.

"When Barack Obama ran for president four years ago, people were sort of stunned. 'Wow, he's using social media.' Now social media have become sort of the central nervous system of American politics," Lee said.

During Wisconsin's epic budget battle, a fast-breaking story with so many different angles, the Twitter hashtag "WI Union" became sort of a clearinghouse for information related to the Legislature, the protests and the unions. It was common to see lawmakers tweeting from the Senate floor.

"Last year in the height of all of this, while we were intense about things, one day I tweeted I was watching American Idol on FOX6 eating a bowl of chili," Walker said.

"It is one of the historic tweets. It has to be looked at as a historic tweet.  I don't think he gets it.  He looks very callow. He looks very uncaring," Zielinski said.

Today, the hashtag "WI Recall" is where you'll find the candidates, the voters and the reporters who cover them all weighing in. Twitter is now an indispensable tool for political campaigns, not only for communication, but also for voter outreach and fundraising. "It brings the individual into politics," Lee said.

It is not, however, a place for heightened discourse. Instead of the profound, you get the pithy - wrapped with a bow, in 140 characters or fewer. "Social media is, in a sense, bumper sticker politics.  In 140 characters, you can't give a policy explanation for the Ryan Budget or for why the Ryan budget is a bad thing," Lee said.

The act of tweeting, which sounds so pleasant, so innocent - almost like whispering can be fraught with danger. The most notorious case of a politician misusing Twitter was Congressman Anthony Weiner of New York, who tweeted something very private that ended up costing him his job and his marriage.

Just as Twitter can douse marital passions, it can also inflame politics.

"Social media trends to the hot, the emotional, and therefore frankly, to the demagogic," Lee said.

"You've had a number of people step in it on Twitter.  There is a vernacular that is different from when I'm standing here talking to you," Zielinski said.

Political figures tend to type things on Twitter they wouldn't normally say on camera or in public. For example, state Senator Lena Taylor compared Scott Walker with Adolf Hitler. Some tweets actually called for the assassination of Scott Walker, and others, the killing of President Barack Obama.

It's easy to type your way into trouble. Zielinski, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin's spokesman, is as candid on camera as he is on screen. He has lobbed accusations about child rape at prominent Republicans. Zielinski is a prolific tweeter, who says he doesn't regret any of his tweets. His background as a writer for the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel prepared him for the punchy prose. Now, as the Democratic Party's spokesman, he doesn't need the press as much.

"Frankly, it's a way for us to bypass (the media). For us to bypass traditional journalism and talk directly to our people without the media filter," Zielinski said.

Twitter also allows political operatives to monitor which arguments are resonating with the public, and to push and prod reporters, drawing attention to their views. Because it's instant and almost "stream of consciousness," it lacks the controls of editing, fact checking and certainly runs more emotional and inflammatory.

"What politicians love about social media is that they can bypass the press. They can reach the public directly. They can say exactly what they want," Lee said.

There is a key organizing element, so a tweet about a protest, rally or volunteer opportunities has the potential to turn into this: "We had 35,000 people who helped gather nearly a million signatures. There's no way we could have done that without social media," Zielinski said.

Twitter is cheaper than direct main and encourages instant credit card donations, just a click away.

The most prominent politician in the state - Gov. Scott Walker has two Twitter accounts -- one for the official side of things, and one for the campaign, with a total of more than 50,000 followers.

"I can talk directly to people. We can give instant information to you. We can comment on things, not just on status but tell people, 'hey here's something interesting to read.' Probably the best thing for us is somehow when we think the truth is being twisted by our opposition, we can get that out to tens of thousands of people -- the facts, and we can link something to validate it.  That has a tremendous impact that no one even dreamed of a couple of years ago," Walker said.

If you follow @GovWalker (Walker's handle), you will get a glimpse of Walker's schedule, what issues he thinks are important, and what he's been doing on his very limited downtime.

"The other night I tweeted about how impressive I thought Donald Driver was on Dancing With the Stars. Last night I got home late and got to watch the end of the Brewers game when they won in the tenth inning with my kids.  Sometimes I just comment on that or some of the other things going on because I think people need to have a window into who you are and what's going on in your life.  They don't need to know everything. They don't need to know every meal I have every day, but I try to mix it up a bit," Walker said.

"You see people's thoughts in real-time. You see athletes saying stuff in the heat of the moment. It's useful to see what people think. Let me take back what I said about not regretting -- I could have more context for what I was tweeting, but that's part of the good and bad of it. If you want a filtered conversation that's not very honest, you can look someplace else," Zielinski said.

Twitter has also become a substitute for old-fashioned retail politics. The retweet is now the substitute for the handshake, and the Instagram is the stand-in for the diner visit. Especially in a four-week sprint-of-a-campaign, it's a virtual visit for voters who feel like they're having a one-on-one interaction.

"What social media has done is, it's made the individual feel that they are part of the political system, part of the political movement, that they can make a difference," Lee said.

Ted Koppel once said "we may be reconstructing the Tower of Babel. We now have the ability to communicate with everything and say nothing. Everyone's opinion is afforded equal weight, regardless of merit. It's social, not scholarly.

CLICK HERE to follow Gov. Scott Walker on Twitter.

CLICK HERE to follow Wisconsin Democratic Party spokesman Graeme Zielinski on Twitter.

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