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If you’re keeping up with your favorite members of Congress on social media, you’ve noticed by now that they seem to have multiple accounts. But why?
Back in 2013, Twitter announced that every single lawmaker in the United States Senate was using their platform. Five years later, it’s become essential in the 24-hour news cycle. It’s how your elected official responds to breaking news and Trump tweets. If a Capitol Hill figure gets caught in a scandal, reporters linger on the accounts, waiting for the inevitable statement.
But, again; why the multiple accounts?
Unsurprisingly, Congress was slow to outline official policies for social media use—this is the same group who nearly went cross-eyed when they brought Mark Zuckerberg before the Senate Committees on Judiciary and Commerce for a hearing.
According to the Congressional Research Service, elected officials must “ensure that their official position (i.e., representative, congressman, congresswoman) is clearly stated in the account name.” For example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s juggernaut Twitter account is @AOC and lists her as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
But there’s also @RepAOC, which has only a fraction of the followers. But it clearly defines she’s a U.S. representative.
The @RepAOC account is defined as an “official resource”—meaning that it uses official funds. Since Congressional staffers are government employees, their time is “an official resource of Congress.”
@RepAOC is subject to the House rules. But @AOC is not.
And it’s not just Twitter—any social profile that uses the “official resources” has to be listed. Ocasio-Cortez also has multiple Instagram pages.
The golden freshman of the Republican caucus, Rep. Dan Crenshaw—who is a spry 34-years-old—recently noted the ethics rules in a tweet after he set up his official account @RepDanCrenshaw.
Of course, for Crenshaw, the burden of multiple accounts is hardly as taxing as it is for AOC. The freshman Democrat is juggling millions of followers, while Crenshaw boasts a mild 286,000 on his personal account, @DanCrenshawTX. That’s also less than freshman Democrats @IlhanOmar (455,000 followers) and @RashidaTlaib (315,000 followers)
Crenshaw has managed to pull it together on his official account as well. Currently, he has nearly 175,000 followers on that handle.
And a lot of Congress members have staffers dedicated to social media. In the 115th Congress (2017-2018), 32 percent of elected officials had a staffer with “social media” or “new media” in their title, according to the Congressional Research Service. That’s up from 16 percent in the 113th (2013-2014). Keeping those staffers on the payroll allows them to easily stay in line on the ethics regulations.
The Senate has different ethics rules than the House. The upper chamber’s rules are bit more dusty, and on social media policies, they seem to defer to the campaign regulations. Here’s the line the Senate Ethics Committee draws: “The Senate’s Internet Services and Technology Resources Usage Rules prohibit any linkage from a Member’s official website or social media to any campaign website or social media.”.
For example, @KamalaHarris is a personal account, so Harris can use it for her campaign and you’ll notice the bio links to her campaign website, KamalaHarris.org. But @SenKamalaHarris is an official account. That one links to Harris.Senate.gov. Her Capitol Hill staffers are allowed to tweet from that account but only her campaign staff is allowed to tweet from @KamalaHarris.
So, what happens after a lawmaker leaves public service? Again, the water is murky. The Congressional Research Service notes that “all records generated by a Member of Congress in the course of his or her service in the House or Senate are the personal property of the Member.”
Those tweets, and even that handle are the property of the member. Sometimes they delete the account. Sometimes they just rename it. The bot @CongressChanges tracks what happens with those accounts.
As of the publication of this article, there is no system in place to archive the tweets of members of Congress. Presidential tweets are archived by the National Archives and Records Administration but after a Congressman leaves Capitol Hill, they can delete their account and tweets.
With social media continuing to be the way in which we talk to each other and younger generations entering Washington, there’s a good chance that some of these rules will be made a little more transparent or at least updated.
But, until then, if you’re a member of Congress, it’s probably best to just keep your personal (or campaign) and professional lives separate on social media. If Kamala Harris the senator wants to make a cool video about her role in the Senate, she can have her office’s digital guru help.
But if Kamala Harris the presidential candidate wants to cut a video about her 2020 platform, the money that she uses to fund it has to come from campaign contributions, not taxpayer’s pockets.
Alex Thomas is a journalist based in Washington, D.C.