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State senators turn to social media

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    Sen. Jill Tokuda, shown tweeting from her office, has embraced social media to communicate with her constituents.
    A specialist says the social media services are essential to reach the “post-millennial” generation.

To Cassandra Harris, being a political leader means you have to have a lot of followers.

On Twitter, that is.

Harris, 26, was brought on by the state Senate this year as its social media specialist. She’s part of a pilot project encouraging senators and their committees to share their legislative business through the popular social media service.

It’s a project, she said, that will not only make it easier for people to track proposed legislation, but will also make the political process in the Senate more transparent by reaching more tech-savvy voters.

“The Millennial Generation created social media,” Harris said. “The post-millennial generation is the one that’s going to grow up with social media, whatever form that takes. In order to connect with those individuals, it’s going to be essential to be on the same media that they are.”

Senate Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria (D, Downtown-Waikiki) said that he wanted to craft a

social media policy for the Senate because sites such as Twitter and Facebook reach an audience that is, as of yet, largely untapped by Hawaii legislators.

“I never thought I’d be tweeting,” said Galuteria. “I’m 55 years old. But what we’ve learned is that as people get a little older, they get a little bit more sophisticated.”

Galuteria estimates that as many as 30 percent of the constituents in his district use social media, and he predicts that as younger, social media-aware voters age, that number is only going to increase.

“Naturally, it’s going to grow,” Galuteria said. “Exponentially. You cannot deny it’s already in the marketplace. I think it’s incumbent upon us as public officials to utilize that technology.”

But not everybody in the Legislature is happy with the push to use social media sites.

While the leaders of 11 of the Senate’s 14 committees say they use Twitter or Facebook to either communicate with their constituents or conduct committee business, only six of the 20 committees in the House are led by representatives who make use of social media.

“For me, I’d rather not change the way I do business,” said House Hawaiian Affairs Chairwoman Rep. Faye Hanohano (D, Pahoa-Kalapana). “I have no need for all the higher technology, like the Twitter and the Facebook.”

Even some senators who use social media say they still are skeptical about just how effective the media are in reaching potential voters.

“I think all of us are looking for ways to better communicate and to reach out to people who maybe don’t use traditional mechanisms,” said Sen. Rosalyn Baker (D, Honokohau-Ma­ke­na). “But whether the demographic that’s heavily into Twitter and Facebook actually vote, we don’t know yet.”

Though Baker has both a Facebook profile and a Twitter account, she said she limits her social media use partly because she doesn’t have the time, but also because she can’t be sure just who is following her online.

“If they’re using an alias or a pseudonym I may not know who they are,” Baker said. “I can’t really gauge whether or not they are constituents, or how it’s reaching them.”

For others, however, the added reach is worth it, especially when it comes at little or no cost.

“You look at Twitter, you look at Facebook, you look at USTREAM, those are mediums that are free,” said Sen. Jill Tokuda (D, Kaneohe-Kailua). “There’s no charge to utilize them.”

So far this session, Tokuda has conducted an hourlong Twitter town hall and a live-streamed Web conference with students tracking bills at the Legislature. She said she plans to do even more in the realm of social media, but also said that social media should not be used as a substitute for more traditional ways of connecting with constituents.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to forgo the face time that we have in hearings with our constituents,” Tokuda said. “But I think any opportunity we have to increase engagement, the better.”

Galuteria said there are still a lot of people whom social media just doesn’t reach.

“It all depends on the constituency you serve,” Galuteria said. “My district has a lot of seniors, so they may not use social media. On the other hand, if you look at some other districts with a high number of younger constituents, odds are better that they use social media.”

But for people like Harris, social media is something that politicians should think about using sooner rather than later.

“If you’re not there, there’s the potential for someone else to be there,” Harris said. “And you want to be there. People could have accounts that are misrepresentative.”

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