Politicians and Twitter: For better or worse?

Anthony Weiner's Twitter scandal

The social networking site Twitter has become popular among politicians eager to get out their message. However, after New York Congressman Anthony Weiner struggled to explain how an embarrassing photo went out to thousands of his Twitter followers, some may be having second thoughts.

CBS News correspondent Nancy Cordes reports that, of the 535 members of Congress, all but a handful use Twitter. The social network is now accessible on most mobile phones. Twitter's reach gives users an unprecedented ability to promote their agenda, and themselves, 140 characters at a time.

"People like to vote for human beings, and Twitter gives a candidate an unparalleled opportunity to appear human, in real time, over time," says Jonathan Abell with Wired Magazine

The politicians with the biggest Twitter following are the ones who, like Congressman Weiner, tweet themselves instead of leaving it to their staff.

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"I'm tired of looking and feeling fat," wrote Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, whose candid tweets have endeared her as many as 55,000 followers.

Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Cory Booker has amassed more than one million virtual constituents, even though he runs a city of less than 300,000. Last winter, he used Twitter to locate residents stranded by a blizzard.

"It's a powerful tool to connect with my community in ways that you really just can't thorough the regular means of telephone, email or even going door to door," Booker said.

However, the immediacy of twitter - just type and hit send - eliminates the opportunity for second thoughts, as some lawmakers have learned the hard way.

Michigan Congressman Pete Hoekstra got in hot water in 2009 for tweeting "just landed in Baghdad," even though the trip was supposed to be a secret.

Last November, seven little words prompted now-retired Senator Chris Dodd to issue an urgent apology, after his account blasted profanity to nearly 13,000 followers, when he wrote: "U love torturing me with this s**t."

Both men are still on Twitter, as is Congressman Weiner, who bragged digitally this week about all his new followers. For politicians seeking the spotlight, the online soap box is just too tempting.

  • Nancy Cordes
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    Nancy Cordes is CBS News' congressional correspondent.