Twitter: Candid Tweets Can Sting Politicians

Communication is a currency in Washington, a town that maintains its relevance by driving a finely tuned message. Invested right, it pays dividends. But a poor decision can derail months of hard work. For decades, it was prescribed: decide on a message, hold a press conference or distribute a press release, then hope some news outlets put your name favorably in print or on the air. But then social media arrived on the scene, and suddenly all bets were off. Pols realized they could amass followers, break news, and hammer a list of talking points on their own terms. Just ask Sarah Palin, the former GOP running mate, who, after deriding unfair treatment in the press, found a large following on Facebook and Twitter.

Theoretically, the happy outcome for politicians is a breaking of the mold of traditional info dissemination, the ability to control their own message. But some politicians would be better off if they didn't have complete control. Earlier this summer, Rep. Peter Hoekstra fired off a seemingly innocuous line on Twitter in response to the election protests in Iran. "Iranian twitter activity similar to what we did in the House last year when Republicans were shut down," he wrote, in reference to a year earlier when Speaker Nancy Pelosi concluded a House session without Republicans. The line dominated the news that day and opened Hoekstra up to unflattering attacks of faux self-importance and a glib understanding of the situation overseas. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also got a wake-up call to the raw nature of the new medium after a Web video of him wielding a butcher knife to emphasize the need for budget cuts garnered more shock than amusement.

In a media environment where politicians feel the need to instantly have an opinion about everything, the effect is less inhibition to express those opinions. "The instant nature of [social media] encourages people to express the emotion of the moment rather than considering more carefully what they think," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

Compared to verbal cues, the basis for nonverbal communication originates in a different part of the brain. According to Alan Barbour, author of Louder Than Words: Nonverbal Communication, the way we communicate with people is based on interpreting a combination of body movements and facial expressions. Raising eyebrows and turning the corners of the mouth can help convey meaning, and emotion, but on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, it's harder to gauge exactly how a thought might be received. "Unless you are skilled as a writer, often people use these media to say things that they think are funny and readers misinterpret because there's a communication that is missing," says Internet psychologist Charles Graham. It also draws back to inhibition. A study of college students in 2008 discovered that nonverbal online-based communications made people more comfortable asking questions or expressing opinions.

But what's good news for college students can be risky business for pols with a much bigger audience and their jobs constantly on the line. Earlier this year, Virginia Republican Party chairman Jeffrey Frederick fired off a celebratory tweet about convincing a Democratic senator to switch parties that would have shifted the balance of power in the state Senate. "Big news coming out of Senate: Apparently one dem is either switching or leaving the dem caucus. Negotiations for power-sharing underway," he wrote. But the papers had not yet been signed to make the deal official. Frederick's line was picked up by Democratic leadership, who quickly convinced the senator to stay put and subvert the coup.

Other viral faux pas? Scheduled to make an announcement the following morning about whether he'd run for Senate, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff tweeted the night before that he was, in fact, entering the race—a line of less than 140 characters that largely deflated his big next-day press conference. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a prolific tweeter, also had some apologizing to do after revealing a lunch meeting between Senate colleague Michael Bennet and a reporter after another reporter was told Bennet was too busy.

With the inherent risks of microblogging and social media, it's easy to forget the upsides too. Openness and transparency can convey an air of frankness, a rare quality among those whose jobs depend on them staying on message. "The more open and honest [politicians] are and the more we see the real politician, the more likely they will get support, since they are the least-trusted of professions," says psychologist Graham. Still, one could argue that if they can't control their typing fingers or the rawness of their sentiments, they probably shouldn't be self-publishing in the first place. It draws back to forward thinking, Sabato says. "One thoughtless comment could turn into the TV ad that beats you in the next election."