To break the Congressional deadlock over the debt ceiling crisis, President Obama today turned to a weapon that's helped to bring down governments across Northern Africa and the Middle East this spring: Twitter. In an address earlier today, Obama urged voters to write, call or tweet their local Congress members to put pressure on them to reach a compromise on raising the debt ceiling with the Aug. 2 deadline looming.
Toward that end, Obama's 2012 campaign Twitter account began posting the Twitter handles of Republican lawmakers in each state, and the posts went through the list alphabetically by state. Some messages single out particular Representatives in different states. "Nevada voters: Tweet @DeanHeller and ask him to compromise on a balanced budget solution," read one sent out this afternoon.
The Hill reported that phone circuits on Capitol Hill were said to be at near capacity around 11:45 a.m. The Fail Whale hasn't shown up on Twitter yet, so it appears the service has been able to handle the volume of activity triggered by the President's call to action to save the country from economic calamity. That means if a call can't get through, at least a tweet can.
While Obama's Twitter strategy itself has generated plenty of publicity, including this blog post, it brings up the question of how many Americans are presently on Twitter. In short, what's the addressable audience for the President's appeal to unleash a Twitterstorm on intransigent Tea Partiers? According to the latest estimate by the Pew Research Center, about 13% of the adult U.S. online population uses Twitter at least occasionally.
That's obviously a lot less than have phones or use email, and a small portion of the overall population. So is Twitter likely to play a significant role when people have other, traditional options for reaching elected representatives, unlike in non-democratic states where the Internet and social media becomes a crucial means of circumventing repressive government policies?
Maybe not, but it doesn't mean Twitter is reduced to a mere novelty in citizen action here. "Twitter users are a modest minority in terms of the size of their population, as you point out," notes Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Center's Internet & American Life Project. "Still, Twitter and other social media platforms are places where people now commonly try to push their ideas and promote their agendas."
Indeed, a separate Pew study earlier this year found political activism helped to drive Twitter use in the midterm elections. It found 22% of online adults used Twitter or other social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace in the months leading up to the November 2010 elections to connect to a campaign or the election itself.
Among social network users, 40% of Republican voters and 38% of Democratic voters used social sites to become involved politically. What's more, Tea Party supporters were especially active, with 22% friending a political candidate or group on a social site. That makes you wonder whether Obama's Twitter campaign could have a reverse effect on Tea Party loyalists, prompting them to send tweets encouraging their Representatives to renounce any compromise.
On the other hand, the Twitter findings released in June showed African-Americans and Hispanics are far more likely to use the micro-blogging service. A quarter of blacks, for instance, said they were on Twitter, compared to 9% of whites. Twitter users also skew young. Those are all demographic groups that tend to vote for Democrats.
Needless to say, President Obama is hoping that tweets, calls and emails calling for resolution of the debt ceiling issue will cross all party and demographic lines. And maybe lead to a few new Twitter users in the process.