Lobbyists On Twitter

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Saturday’s Washington Post features a story about lobbyists on twitter.

The story points out the growth of telecom lobbyists on twitter, and casts an inquisitive light on disclosure in public online communications.

I was quoted in the article, saying that traditional influence is adjusting to the digital sphere in complex ways. Any alarm we feel at the complex identity of paid lobbyists should be tempered, though, by an appreciation for the effects of communicating online. Just as we can more easily deceive and mislead, we can just as easily be empowered as authentic socializers. Perhaps our response, instead of simply “Ask if hired gun,”as the NYT recently summarized, should be “welcome, and be wary of, hired guns.”

Online interaction is full of sock puppetry and astroturfing. Sock puppetry is the use of fake accounts (say, making up fake people who agree with what you write), and astroturfing is making up fake movements (artificial grassroots). This is quite different, though from the Lobbying Disclosure Act’s definition of lobbying. If it’s public, then it doesn’t count as a lobbying contact.

This is an important distinction. The distorting effects of money in politics are often achieved through privileged access. Public arguments, however, don’t have the same kind of risks. (That’s not to say that public discussions are immune from the distorting effects of money.) If digital technology moves more influence into the public sphere, then that’s a great result. In fact, we should be creating a world where that happens. Merit-based decision making is far easier to protect if the merits can be debated in public.

This isn’t to say that lobbyists shouldn’t disclose their identity on twitter. If for no other reason, they should do so to avoid creating an unnecessary liability for their clients. (That’s why my twitter bio notes the melange of roles I play, including registered lobbyist.)

We should be aware of how paid interests affect things like public debate, perceived consensus, and, (especially) legislators’ ability to judge the merit of policies. At the same time, we should recognize that more public conversation is one of the strongest tools we have to guard against distorted politics.

As more of that conversation moves online, we’re going to need to develop new ideas about how to disclose our interests and biases, and a stronger ability to detect attempts to game or deceive.

If there’s anything we’ve learned about people getting on twitter, though, it’s that people often disclose more than they should, rather than less. Lobbyists, PR firms, Word of Mouth marketers, celebrities — they can all use twitter like any other tool — as an means of authentic engagement, or as another means to deceive or distort.

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