Last month, press secretary Robert Gibbs tweeted a New York Times story detailing the questionable ties between lobbyists and House Minority Leader John Boehner: "Don't forget this handy clip & save graphic of 'K Street Cabinet' (black & white photo doesn't do that tan justice!)." Boehner quickly retorted on Twitter, "'Across From White House, Coffee with Lobbyists,' @PressSec forgot to Tweet about Dems meeting w/lobbyists @ Caribou."
It was a first for the dirty world of politics: a petty back and forth between two party figureheads on Twitter, a service that could become a platform for digital mudslinging. But to Matt Lira, digital communications director for House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, the online squabble is actually a sign that our government is improving, even though it appears but another instance of our politicians tearing each other apart.
"It's really cool," Lira says, brimming with excitement.
Lira has every reason to be optimistic—he's witnessed the power social media can have on politics first hand. Before joining Cantor's senior staff, Lira brought his digital know-how to the 2008 presidential election. He watched as a little-known Illinois senator named Barack Obama shot to the national stage in part from his campaign's innovative use of social media. He saw a grassroots movement flourish online from Facebook to Twitter to YouTube. He witnessed Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes tap into the huge force of the Internet, with help from a huge Web staff from the Obama campaign. And he watched all this happen—from the other side, running a tiny digital team of just four or five staffers for John McCain.
Lira now spends his days making social media a core ingredient of conservative strategy, and it's already beginning to show signs of success. Republicans have passed Democrats in social media use. Mid-term candidates, a central focus of Cantor's position as House Whip, are crushing their left-leaning opponents in Facebook fans and Twitter followers. "We've been very enthusiastic about spreading the good word about social media," Lira says. "Television changed not just how politics and government worked, but it changed who was in government—social media is doing the exact same thing."
But Lira has a different, more important goal in mind for social media that goes beyond partisan politics: policy. What goes on behind the closed-off doors of Congress has pushed legislation out of the public's grab, surrounded by all-too-high walls of insular Washington culture. Lira hopes social media will help begin tearing those barriers down. Recently, Cantor launched YouCut, a crowdsourcing project to give the public an actual and tangible say in policy. It's unique from other crowdsourcing projects in that, well, it works. Every week Congress is in session, users can head to YouCut to vote for the spending items they want to see eliminated from legislation. Cantor takes the winning item and offers it on the House floor for an actual up-or-down vote.
"With YouCut we asked, How can we use social media as a legitimate tool to connect the American public with the legislative process?" Lira says. "The results were very clear: People want to do something substantive."
Indeed, in just under a half-year, more than 2 million people voted for various spending cuts. In one instance, Cantor requested that users search through online expenditure reports for specific agencies, dense spreadsheets of government garble, to flag questionable figures.
"It was a pretty in-depth ask," Lira jokes. "But we had 10,000 responses within a couple of days, helping us go through all that data. Someone actually found $800,000 being spent on a fantasy basketball league! It was ludicrously wasteful!"
Despite working for Republicans, Lira is committed to making social media a tool for public sector improvement, regardless of party affiliation.
"So much of social media is non-partisan—it can make government better," he explains. "It's not make believe. The key is making sure people's votes online have an affect on the outcome—that they are making an authentic impact on the process. We must apply these lessons to other activities in the future: incorporating audiences into bill crafting, oversight, hearings, committee meetings, floor activities—make the public's interaction real."
But isn't there a strong chance that social media would only inflame partisan politics, as it did in the Gibbs-Boehner Twitter fight? After all, it's politicians who make politics partisan. Giving them another tool to cause squabbles might have its downsides. I asked Lira about one of the most partisan legislation issues in years, the health care bill. One of the more testy moments occurred during the Health Care Summit, when President Obama and Eric Cantor duked it out over the use of the "2,400 page" bill as a prop to score political points. How could Facebook or Twitter ever help diffuse these tensions?
Lira expressed regret that social media didn't play a larger role in the health-care bill process. Would crowdsourcing the legislation on YouCut have been a more effective approach than this bickering between Cantor and Obama?
"Yes, absolutely," he answers. "We've passed the point where social media is just window dressing"