The Conversation: Understanding 'Hashtag Politics'

Michael Patrick Leahy, creator of #TCOT, explains how Twitter changes politics.

ByABC News
September 20, 2010, 12:07 PM

Sept. 20, 2010— -- What's now being called "hashtag politics" has changed the political landscape, giving grassroots activists from both political parties a platform to share their views and gain followers.

If you need any evidence of the power of social media in modern day politics, just look at the Twitter hashtag #TCOT, which stands for "Top Conservatives on Twitter." The tag has allowed individual Twitter users to connect their tweets into an active and influential conversation.

"I think in terms of the world of hashtag politics, we conservatives do have the upper hand right now," said Michael Patrick Leahy, who helped popularize the #TCOT hashtag list in November 2008. "We're the group that really launched the Tea Party movement in February of 2009."

Leahy is now writing a book, "The Ideological Origins of the Tea Party Movement," to be released in 2011, and his website,, provides a list of conservatives active on Twitter, ranked according to the number of followers.

Leahy started his list as a response to the perception that liberal activists dominated online. The list now includes both Tea Party darlings and mainstream Republican figures, including Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and Karl Rove. Other grassroots activists also rank highly, though they may not be household names.

"It turns out there were a lot of conservatives on Twitter," he said. "They were A, lonesome, and B, competitive. They wanted to get on top of the list."

"What's happening now, particularly in the Republican, but ultimately in the Democratic party, the manner in which the agenda is set, how the party is organized, and who the leaders are is in the process of historical transformation," Leahy said.

Leahy says that social media sites like Twitter and Facebook are already having a strong influence in the run-up to the mid-term elections in November, and Politico's Andy Barr agrees.

"We've got such grassroots field. That's where a lot of the energy, a lot of the money is coming from," Barr said. "[Social media sites are] the way they're communicating. A lot of the time, they're using Twitter and Facebook really to kind of spread a message that you don't see out there a lot."

Barr points to the example of Tea Party-backed candidate Christine O'Donnell, who is the subject of countless tweets this week in response to her upset in the Delaware Republican Primary, not to mention her comments about witchcraft on Bill Maher's talk show in the late 90's.

Still, Barr says, #TCOT and the Tea Party have to prove that their ability to generate buzz can translate into a governing philosophy.

"They're going to have to run these guys for reelection. You know, you only get to be the rebels for one election cycle. Eventually, these guys are going to become the institution," Barr said.

Today on the Conversation, ABC's David Muir spoke with both Barr and Leahy about the power of hashtag politics and its limits. We hope you'll watch.

Click here to watch more from the Conversation series.

Click here to return to the "World News" page.