Michigan lawmakers make their mark on social media

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Since taking office, President Donald Trump has continued using Twitter with abandon to transmit opinions to the world – unfettered by filters or fact checkers.

“Should I keep the Twitter going or not? Keep it going? I think so,” Trump said to cheers at an inaugural ball last month.

Typically, elected officials delegate social media posts to staffers, but the Tweeter in Chief doesn't appear likely to hand over his password to an underling anytime soon.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley

The same goes for some of Michigan’s most prominent politicians on Twitter – Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, as well as U.S. Reps. Justin Amash of the Grand Rapids area and Bill Huizenga of Zeeland. The Republicans say that handing over the social-media reins would jeopardize the authenticity of their voices online, where they try to give followers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of their political and personal lives.

“There really isn’t anyone else who can get the message of your thoughts, your positions across as well or as authentically as you can,” said Calley, a Republican also active on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.

But with that password comes great responsibility, they said, such as thinking through the potential backlashes to posts. Even the deleted messages of public officials are archived.

Be they condemnations or praise, Trump’s posts – like the man himself – are unpredictable. In his first month on the job, Trump’s 140-character missives have moved financial markets and set off diplomatic spats.

“I know when to draw the line. Donald Trump doesn’t seem to know,” Amash said, raising the example of the then-president-elect’s use of Twitter to attack a union leader in Indiana named Chuck Jones in December.

“You are a public figure, and you have to accept that people will say things about you that you can’t say about them because it just wouldn’t be appropriate.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has suggested the president’s tweets are, at times, unhelpful: "It would be, I think, easier for us to succeed were there fewer daily tweets," he told the Wall Street Journal last week.

Huizenga, who campaigned with the GOP presidential nominee in west Michigan, also wishes Trump had more of a filter on Twitter.

“It would just be more prudent for him to maybe not tweet out things exactly the way he tweets them out,” Huizenga said. “But I’m not sure that’s going to change anytime soon. That's the nature of the beast. He's ridden out the good and the bad with it and, so far, it’s worked.”

Break from the norm

Josh Pasek, an assistant professor of communications studies at at the University of Michigan, said staffers are typically responsible for politicians’ social media accounts because they can be time-consuming to maintain, and “why would you want to deal with that on your own?”

Former U.S. Rep. John Dingell

“It is symptomatic of a problem where the interest is less and less about getting good legislation passed and more about winning public-relations battles," said Pasek, who studies how new media can shape public opinion and political attitudes.

“That strikes me as being really bad harbinger for democracy. We don’t want our lawmakers thinking about what is a good tweet to zing the other side.”

Retired Rep. John Dingell, recently nicknamed “tweet king” by POLITICO’s Playbook, seems to tweet about Trump as much as he tweets about Michigan sports, but he’s no Trump fanatic.

The Dearborn Democrat has more than 86,000 followers on Twitter – not bad for a 90-year-old – and makes headlines for zingers that elicit “lols” from both sides of the aisle.

“The only way Trump seems ‘presidential’ is that a handful of our first few presidents wore elaborate wigs,” Dingell tweeted during the campaign last fall.

“If only there were a way to unpresident,” Dingell tweeted in December after Trump misspelled “unprecedented” as “unpresidented” in a tweet.

After the White House press secretary quoted Dingell’s wife, Rep. Debbie Dingell, suggesting that people protested at the Women’s March for positive reasons, John Dingell tweeted: “I'm wise enough to know: 1) not to tell my wife what she meant. 2) that if a million women marched to my house, I'd probably listen to them.”

Amash vs. Trump

The libertarian-minded Amash also has not held back in criticizing Trump, becoming one of the first Republicans in Congress to denounce Trump’s executive order restricting travelers from seven Muslim-majority nations and refugees.

“I criticized President Obama extensively for things that I think he did wrong. ... I don’t see why it should be any different with Donald Trump,” said Amash, who has 104,000 followers on Twitter.

“If you’re the president of the United States, you have to be scrutinized. You are in a position of extraordinary power, and it’s incumbent on the other branches of government and the media and the public to hold that person accountable.”

The 36-year-old congressman has not gotten any replies from Trump on Twitter.

“I’m looking forward to it. It hasn’t happened yet,” Amash said.

Amash gained social media acclaim when, as a state lawmaker, he began posting explanations of his votes on Facebook. He continued when he got to Congress, though he fell behind last year.

Juarin Amash

He has not shied from debating policy on Twitter, which he finds helpful for thinking through and practicing his arguments.

“If I have an upcoming town hall, then it’s great that I’ve been engaging with these people on Twitter, so that when I get to the town hall, I’m more prepared for the questions that might arise,” said Amash, whose last town hall in Grand Rapids drew 600.

Behind-the-scenes views

Huizenga likes to use social media to go beyond talking points and give constituents a behind-the-scenes look. Last month, he did a live broadcast on Facebook just before members of Congress were sworn in, and of his view from the Capitol platform on inauguration day.

“It’s sometimes a mystery what we do and how we do things out here to a lot of people,” Huizenga said. “It demystifies it a little bit, and it includes people.”

The 48-year-old lawmaker broke major news on Twitter in September 2015 when he reported from a private meeting of the GOP Conference that House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio was resigning.

“I stepped out of the room as soon as he said it and hit send,” Huizenga said. “I didn’t think I’d be the first.”

He has endured some hard-learned lessons about messing up on social media – either with a typo or misspeaking. Huizenga called it a “fat-finger moment” when he congratulated Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on her new “roll,” rather than “role.” The reaction was swift from those eager to point out the mistake.

“I hit send, then saw it, and thought, ‘Now what do I do?’” he said. “I learned that I should have replied to same tweet and corrected it.”

For the 39-year-old Calley, the draw of Twitter and Facebook in part is the ability to bypass the traditional media and go directly to the public.

“Nobody else gets to decide whether this is important enough to share. You’ve got a way to communicate with people in a fashion that fits your values and opinion on something,” he said.

Calley offered the example of a one-minute video he recorded on the spur of the moment and posted on Facebook as the school year started, encouraging parents to talk to their children about making friends with the kids who often get left out. The video was viewed nearly 40,000 times and shared more than 600 times.

“It’s not like The Detroit News would say that’s important,” said Calley, whose daughter has autism. “But 40,000 people thought it was.”

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