Politically connect: Twitter use is up

Some lawmakers find 'tweets' perfect way to reach voters without 'journalistic interference'

by Jun Hongo

Presumably exhausted from all the heat over his political money scandals, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama recently limited the number of questions he takes from reporters every morning as he leaves his official residence.

But in the safe, cozy world of Twitter, Hatoyama — like many other politicians waking up and joining the 21st century — seems to have found the joy of posting comments without facing an inquiring press.

“It’s my birthday today. I am 63 years old,” he wrote Feb. 11 on his Twitter page.

Since creating an account with the microblogging service on New Year’s Eve, Hatoyama has averaged about one post a day, sharing thoughts like his take on the Winter Olympics in Canada to his meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“It’s been a month since I began Twitter. It has recently become a little joy for me to go over the comments from everyone. Thank you,” he wrote in late January.

As the trend of texting short messages continues to spread its wings around the globe, Japanese politicians have begun exploiting the communications tool to connect directly with the public.

The turning point for Twitter-use by lawmakers was the Lower House election last August, when the Democratic Party of Japan staged its historic win over the Liberal Democratic Party. Although use of Twitter — along with a range of other activity, both online and in the real world — is prohibited during campaigns under the Public Offices Election Law, some of the most important political developments since then have unraveled via Twitter postings, or “tweets” as they’ve come to be known.

Upper House member Kotaro Tamura kept his followers updated Feb. 8 as he went about joining the DPJ after leaving the LDP last year. Tamura’s addition gave the DPJ-led ruling bloc a crucial advantage in the Upper House, gaining 121 out of 242 seats.

“Joined the party now,” Tamura tweeted as he met with DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa. He later confessed in a posting that he is not entirely content with the policies of the ruling bloc but pledged to do his best for the public.

The LDP’s Taro Kono, considered a strong prospect to someday lead the beleaguered party, posted blunt opinions on his Twitter account Sunday when the LDP-backed candidate won the Nagasaki gubernatorial race by knocking off a DPJ-backed candidate.

With the LDP executives rumored to be planning a boycott of Diet deliberations, Kono tried to pressure party President Sadakazu Tanigaki not to do so.

“Tanigaki-san, you won’t boycott deliberations at the budget committee from tomorrow, will you?” he tweeted in the hope that the LDP’s win in the Nagasaki race would finally change the political tide and set the stage for discussing important issues in the Diet.

The LDP went ahead and staged the boycott of discussions on the fiscal 2010 budget Monday and Tuesday, hoping to goad the DPJ into addressing its money scandals appropriately, including having Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa give sworn testimony in the Diet over his shady land deal and the funds involved.

Masahiko Shoji, an assistant professor at International University of Japan in Niigata, said Twitter has the never-before characteristic of connecting users with their followers in an interactive fashion. While a blog or Web site requires individuals to actively seek them out, Twitter is passive, enabling lawmakers to directly send their messages to their followers with short and frank messages.

“Twitter postings are quick, and it is a direct message from the lawmakers that comes unfiltered by the media and journalists,” the expert on media communication and policy formulation said, explaining that such a feature creates a special bond between tweeters and their followers.

Experts, however, also call Twitter a double-edged sword because its speed can also be used to spread false information or criticism. Twitter has seen its share of fake users disguised as Hatoyama, while careless tweets have drawn incessant responses and attacks.

Such was the case when DPJ Lower House member Seiji Osaka posted a message in early September regarding the party’s political pledges. When some media criticized Hatoyama for not opening up regular news conferences for all accredited media organizations, including magazines and foreign correspondents as the party had promised, Osaka tweeted that drastic changes couldn’t be made overnight.

Osaka’s message quickly drew fire from his followers for being overprotective of the new administration.

As Twitter users explore its capabilities, Shoji said politicians should focus on how to use their tweets strategically and learn from U.S. lawmakers.

American politicians have succeeded in combining Twitter with other tools, such as YouTube and social networking services, using the whole package to create a bond with followers, Shoji said. For example, Twitter is often used to gather feedback from followers, or to make announcements about a planned news briefing.

Some U.S. lawmakers go as far as sending the gist of a freshly delivered speech to make sure their message gets across, Shoji said.

Giving tweets a personal touch is also key, the expert added, saying Hatoyama needs to develop his messages beyond just describing his opinions or daily routine.

One key lawmaker good at this is Social Democratic Party chief Mizuho Fukushima, who opened her Twitter account earlier this month.

In addition to describing her duties for the day, the state minister in charge of consumer affairs and the declining birthrate occasionally posts messages that show her approachable character.

“I always have to eat my lunch extremely quickly (between budget committee sessions), which is bad for the digestion,” she tweeted on Feb. 1. “Just yesterday, I had to park behind the Diet and ate a sandwich in my car.”

Meanwhile, the LDP has been slow to get in on the action.

Asked if he is considering opening a Twitter account, the LDP’s Tanigaki told reporters in January he didn’t intend to do so. “I haven’t tried (Twitter) so I can’t say if I like it or not, but those who like to mutter should go ahead and do it,” he said. “That should be enough.”

Shoji of International University of Japan said Tanigaki is wrong in regarding Twitter as a means to grumble or just a way to kill spare time. “That’s not the case. Twitter enables its users to send out 140 words. It’s a condensed message that can be directly sent from lawmakers to the public.”