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Twitter Is Blocked at the White House, for All But a Chosen Few [UPDATED]

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, July 27 2009

Surely this is one of the great mysteries wrapped inside an enigma of our day. Robert Gibbs sparked a a bit of a flurry in our niche the other day by saying on C-SPAN that Twitter is blocked in the White House. Gibbs used the Twitter blockade to explain why he, as White House press secretary, isn't in the practice of tweeting his own reflections on life inside the White House.

I noted at the time that Gibbs' interpretation couldn't be the full story. There were clearly holes in this blockade. For one thing, the White House's own account at @whitehouse is regularly updated with notes on the President's schedule, pointers to tweets coming from elsewhere in government, and even the occasional "FTW" celebration. Unless White House staffers were using non-White House computers to conduct official business, somewhere in the Executive Office of the President someone had been connecting up to Twitter. Those folks are in the White House's new media operation, which handles the White House's and Obama's social media profiles and outreach.

Over on Mediaite, Rachel Sklar has done some digging into the situation and concluded "Twitter Not Blocked In White House, As It Turns Out." Indeed, according to White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton, a pair of White House new media staffers -- new media director Macon Phillips and online programs director Jesse Lee -- are updating the White House Twitter feed. But the truth of the matter, says a White House contact, is that that pair of staffers are the exception to White House rule. They are two unrestricted aides out of the couple thousand employees in the Executive Office of the President.

I spoke to the White House press office earlier today. A spokesperson told me that access to Twitter.com is indeed prohibited for the many White House staffers who haven't been trained in how to comply with the Presidential Records Act. That law requires that the White House keep detailed records of its interactions with the public, and it has been interpreted to include social media. Phillips, Lee, and other pre-approved staffers are able to use Twitter to post tweets and engage with the public. But other staffers not trained in PRA compliance, said the spokesperson, can't connect to Twitter.com. Restricting who gets to tweet on behalf of the White House makes intuitive sense. But blocking who in the White House can read Twitter is a bigger, and somewhat different, question. Think about this in terms of blogs. The analogous White House policy would be to approve a few outreach staffers to comment on Daily Kos, while at the same time blocking dailykos.com on every other computer in the White House. Whether or not White House staff should be spending time reading Daily Kos or Twitter feeds is its own question, but the approach does mean that Twitter is effectively banned for nearly all of the White House.

If we assume that Phillips, Lee, and perhaps a few other aides have been pre-cleared, then we're in the neighborhood of 1/1000th of the White House staff having access to Twitter.

Training on Presidential Records Act compliance, said the spokesperson, is given it White House staff on a need-to-use basis -- in other words, only when a staffer's professional responsibilities involve Twitter. Without it, Twitter is indeed off limits. With means that the vast majority of people that make up the Executive Office of the President's staff can't even keep tabs from their work computers on the White House's quest for one million Twitter followers.

UPDATE: Asked for comment, John Wonderlich of the transparency group the Sunlight Foundation said that if it's indeed the case that White House access to Twitter is largely blocked because of record keeping concerns, White House staffers are needlessly missing an opportunity. "It sounds ridiculous to me," said Wonderlich. "It sounds like the literal embodiment of the bubble around the White House." After a quick check of the Presidential Records Act, Wonderlich said that the White House seems to be considering at-replies on Twitter as advice to the Executive Office of the President that must be archived. When it comes to social media like wikis and blogs, figuring out what to archive when can be a challenge. But here, says Wonderlich, "We're talking about 140 characters at a time, and each one has a URL." Wonderlich said he's "baffled" by the thinking behind restricting Twitter access within the White House. "Why would you take one of the new tools that is growing the most quickly and say 'that's off limits'?," he said. "That's like saying 'no listening to the radio.'"