Sunday, January 30, 2011

Fine Line between Government Ambassador and Lobbyist

An article in the New York Times yesterday described the work of Adam Sharp--a Twitter employee who spends the majority of his time meeting with Congressmen. Sharp helps Congressmen understand how to utilize Twitter to reach constituents and receive feedback.

Sharp's role raises an interesting question: Is Adam Sharp a lobbyist for Twitter given the frequency of his meeting with Congressmen? Should he be treated as an asset to democracy or as a private interest?

In the United States, the Internal Revenue Service makes a distinction between lobbying and advocacy, defining lobbying as "asking policymakers to take a specific position on a specific piece of legislation". Given this definition, Sharp is not 'lobbying' the Congressmen, but his work sets an interesting precedent. If the Twitter employee mentions net neutrality in the meeting, would he be lobbying? At what point should that employee be required to register as a lobbyist?

Twitter has helped further democracy and improve efficiencies for many Congressmen with the help of Sharp. But does Twitter now have an unfair advantage and disproportionate access to Congressmen? Will they in the future?


  1. Excellent points! I believe we see the same degree of access is given to the Facebook Washington Office or Google's government division. I have talked to a lot of Congressional offices and they mostly see it as a way to train and educate themselves on how to use these tools effectively and to gain deeper insights on how citizens are using the social networking services.

    I would like to add an additional point: When Twitter starts to make money (through promoted tweets or advertisements), how can government officials make sure that they are not endorsing specific products or services (without knowing it)? I believe Facebook has worked with MoC to clean up their pages, so that they don't automatically push advertisements to their sites. We need to double-check this though.

  2. Good debate there. There is another point. In places where access to digital media is limited, the opinion makers through the social networking may not be representing all sections of the society resulting in lopsided picture of what the people actually feel. Therefore, those who rely on the social feedback for their actions and performance, need to be cautious about the skewed view that may be formed because of this.
    Pritam Singh