Washington Lawmakers Want Freedom to Use Popular Social Media Hashtags

The state Senate is debating whether to give staffers more freedom to use popular hashtags on social media, instead of being limited to those that have been pre-approved by Senate administrators.

by Melissa Santos, The News Tribune / April 28, 2017

(TNS) — Some members of the state Senate don’t want to let a good hashtag pass them by.

The Senate is debating whether to give staffers more freedom to jump on board with popular hashtags on social media, instead of being limited to those that have been pre-approved by Senate administrators.

Hashtags — short labels preceded by a # sign — help sort social media posts and group them by topic on sites such as Twitter and Instagram.

Sometimes, hashtags can take on a snarky tone — such as if a constituent tweets something about the Legislature along with the message, #GetALife. (Or, to a reporter, #SlowNewsDay?)

The secretary of the Senate has approved two hashtags for regular use by Senate communications staff: #waedu, associated with state education issues, and #waleg, a catch-all hashtag for the Washington Legislature.

Yet a formal policy on hashtags doesn’t exist, and sometimes others sneak through.

Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, said she’d like the staffers who run the Twitter pages for the Senate’s two political caucuses to feel free to add other hashtags — including timely ones, such as #InternationalWomensDay or #MLKDay — to social media posts when they relate to the Senate’s work.

“What we should do is really take a look at revising our social media policy regarding hashtags to make it more flexible,” Nelson said at a Wednesday meeting of the Senate Facilities and Operations Committee.

Other lawmakers think a formal policy on hashtags would be good for another reason: They say it could help rein in the sniping between political caucuses on Twitter.

“One of the concerns is, with the dueling Twitter feeds, we get into dueling hashtags,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, at Wednesday’s meeting. “I think there are very legitimate uses, and others that just get us into this back-and-forth thing that we need to avoid.”

Lately, Senate Republicans, House Democrats and Senate Democrats have taken to Twitter to criticize the policies of lawmakers across the aisle.

Last week, House and Senate Democrats briefly adopted the hashtag #dandeliondebate to criticize Republicans’ preoccupation with weeds on the Capitol lawn during a budget committee meeting. (That hashtag was started by a legislative reporter.)

Outside of that incident, hashtags haven’t been a huge part of politicians’ online feuds (legislative Twitter seems to be more fond of creating elaborate memes).

But the tone of some recent posts has some lawmakers concerned that allowing more hashtags could add fuel to the fire.

“If you are calling out the other side and making negative statements about the other side, and you’re trying to broadcast that even further through the use of hashtags, I’m not sure I’m on board with that,” said Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, one of the Legislature’s more active members on social media.

Fain said he supports greater use of hashtags to help share information, as long as posts don’t get too political or negative. State law already prevents lawmakers from using state resources to promote political campaigns; Fain and Nelson said those restrictions need to extend to hashtags as well.

For its part, the state House doesn’t have a specific policy on social media hashtags, said House Chief Clerk Bernard Dean. The topic of rules for hashtags has never come up, he said.

Members of the Senate Facilities and Operations Committee have asked Senate communications staffers to recommend a new policy for hashtag approvals, which will be reviewed at a future meeting.

©2017 The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.