Minutes after President Obama urged Americans this morning to tweet their support for a Democratic debt-ceiling bill, a New York Times reporter prompted the White House to organize the effort with a special Twitter hashtag.
Hashtags use the “#” symbol to mark keywords or topics on Twitter. They often help drive messages by linking similar messages together in a common theme.
At 10:55 a.m. the Times’s Jennifer Preston suggested that administration officials might create a hashtag, so tweeting Democrats could jointly target Republicans who are now trying to pass their own debt ceiling plan.
Preston tweeted to a White House rep, saying “@macon44 Hi there. I heard the President ask the people to tweet re: debt ceiling. Are you guys using specific hashtag?”
A minute later, she tweeted a followup to White House staffer Jesse Lee, saying, “Hi Jesse, what’s the hashtag that you guys are urging people to use in their tweets to Congress re: debtceiling.” Lee is the White House’s s director of progressive media & online response. (RELATED: New WH talking point: Boehner is the Grinch, and he’ll steal your Christmas)
Eight minutes later, at 11:04, the White House’s press shop announced a new hashtag for Democrats to use when targeting GOP members of Congress: “@NYT_JenPreston People responding to POTUS shld use #compromise. As he said, it is ‘time for #compromise on behalf of the American people.’”
At 11:31, The Washington Post reported out the new hashtag, and at 12.32, staffers at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget re-tweeted the same message. “RT @postpolitics: The @whitehouse new media team has said people responding to the President on Twitter should use #compromise.”
Preston, whose own tweet ID is @NYT_JenPreston, covers social media in politics and government. Reached by TheDC for comment, she insisted that she wasn’t trying to aid the White House in any way.
“I use Twitter all the time as a reporting tool,” Preston said. “I’m a social media reporter. A lot of reporters use email. I use Twitter. I heard that the president of the United States had urged people to tweet — I didn’t watch the address — But I wanted to set up an alert on Tweetdeck so I could track things.”
“I wasn’t doing it to help the White House,” she added. “I was doing it to help myself.”
Some media observers say it is commonplace for reporters to prompt celebrities and other public figures for their hashtags so both supporters and opponents can coordinate their messages and fans can easily track the results.
For Preston, the entire episode is much ado about nothing, but the experience shows how easy it is to be misinterpreted in messages that are limited to 140 characters. “My conservative friends are hassling me over this,” she said.
* This story was updated after initial publication.