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Agenda Texas: The Twitter Lobby

On the latest Agenda Texas, from KUT News and the Tribune: Plenty of lobbyists are running around the Capitol during the legislative session, but as we enter the digital age, more of the lobbying is taking place on social media.

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What image pops into your head when you hear the word lobbyist?

Be nice.

Here are a few details you may have imagined: white, male, thousand-dollar suit — the stereotypical lobbyist. But as we jump into the digital age, lobbying efforts can also be faceless digital transactions.

“What happens behind curtains most likely still happens to some extent, but the power of the social media tools to gather the constituents and to lobby and create more pressure, it’s definitely visible," said Homero Gil de Zúñiga, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

He spends a chunk of his time focusing on the proliferation of social media, including how Facebook and Twitter are changing interactions with lawmakers. Former state Rep. Aaron Peña was an early adopter of social media in the Legislature. He had a blog and could often be seen around the Capitol checking his Twitter feed, even while sitting in a committee hearing.

"Early on I’d be in a committee hearing and somebody would send me a question. They’d be watching it on television. They’d send it to me and say, 'Ask this question of this expert.' And it was really cool because I’d ask this question and he thought I was really smart," Peña joked.

He says the modern legislator is very aware of what’s being said in social media, even during heated debates on the floor.

“Most of the legislators, after about 45 minutes, tune out. They know how they’re going to vote. But during that off time they listen to what’s being said on the internet," Peña said. "And so when you have people out there by Michael Quinn Sullivan, and they want to make a point that, look, this is a bill that we care about, this is a bill that we’re going to hold people accountable for, he will send his message out.”

That guy he mentioned, Michael Quinn Sullivan, heads the group Empower Texans, a low-tax, low-regulation, small-government advocacy group. He loves Twitter, almost as much as he dislikes Republican lawmakers who fall out of line with his political views. When Republicans in the Senate rolled out a plan to spend $6 billion on infrastructure needs, he tweeted, "When #TxLege senators say 'water' or 'transportation,' what they are really saying is 'pork.'"

He’s giving his opinion, but is also letting his followers know when he thinks lawmakers have messed up, which can lead to additional angry phone calls and emails to a lawmaker’s office.

On the other side of the advocacy aisle, Phillip Martin of Progress Texas also uses Twitter to get his points across. He tends to pop up when journalists are tweeting out comments from a press conference or speech by Gov. Rick Perry.

"It can be tough to follow a speech and keep up with what’s going on in real time and go back and look for context," Martin said. "So Twitter gives me the opportunity to provide context on an issue or to what an elected official may have said historically in the past."

His tweets often direct journalists to information contradicting whatever Perry is saying.

And from inside the Capitol, you can see Martin and Sullivan having success with social media from time to time. But there are a few caveats: First, only about 10 percent of people follow politicians on Twitter. Second, Peña said, if you think 10 percent is small, consider how many of those are actually the constituents of any given politician.

“Most of the people on social media are from the large cities like Austin or Houston or Dallas," Peña said. "And they’re from an educated class of individual that has a computer, that has the freedom to be on a computer during the working hours that is following you."

Peña said that excluded a large portion of his former district, which included many poor families.; @AgendaTexas

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