As President Joe Biden started to roll out the core of his economic team, a reality started to dawn on denizens of what had become a vibrant online community: Econ Twitter was being raided.
The new government roles would almost certainly limit the participation of prominent members of the unofficial group that carries its own hashtag – #EconTwitter.
But what was less appreciated at the time was how their presence inside the administration would guide an overhaul in communicating the details and nuances of the most critical economic data releases.
“If you want to communicate in this era about what’s happening in the economy, Twitter is an incredibly important and powerful tool,” Heather Boushey, a member of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, told CNN in an interview this week in her office.
For a White House that is a flurry of calls, meetings and briefings on major economic data release days, focusing on a social media platform known more for GIFs, memes, epic dunking and arguing if LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan than nuanced economic analysis may seem like an odd consideration.
But for officials on Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, the 19-tweet thread digging into the details of a robust June jobs report that started rolling at just after 9:30 a.m. ET Friday sought to provide just that kind of analysis.
It’s something the CEA’s account has gotten a reputation for delivering on each big economic data day over the course of Biden’s first 18 months in office – whether the data is good, bad or ugly.
“The best inflation news Twitter thread every month – playing it straight as always (no surprise there),” Jason Furman, the former CEA chair under President Barack Obama who hasn’t been shy about criticizing some of Biden’s economic policies, tweeted last month.
Furman was commenting on 16-tweet CEA analysis of inflation data that had come in hotter than expected – and undercut any notion (or White House hope) that 40-year price increases plaguing the administration had peaked and started to decelerate.
“Our mandate is to provide the President with economic analysis so he can do economic policy,” Boushey said when asked about the straightforward approach. “Everything we do is grounded in the data and the evidence, and it’s so core to our mission there’s almost nothing else to say.”
Martha Gimbel was a card-carrying member of #EconTwitter prior to joining Biden’s CEA as a senior adviser, once short handing the group in a podcast as “basically a bunch of economists getting very nerdy about economics on Twitter.”
Gimbel, who along with her economic insights was known for her frequent use of the “Fire Elmo” GIF, was given the keys to the CEA Twitter account shortly after she joined the administration.
Boushey calls her “the genius behind” the CEA’s Twitter approach. Gimbel, who takes pains to make clear it’s a team effort, has another read on things.
“CEA is a place full of econ nerds,” said Gimbel, who shares an office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building with fellow #EconTwitter luminary Ernie Tedeschi, now a senior policy economist at CEA. “And we get really excited about the data.”
Gimbel and roughly a half-dozen colleagues do have one clear benefit in their administration roles: Early access to that data. It’s a small group that, officials make clear, takes the data’s security very seriously given how those numbers can dramatically move markets.
But the early look goes a long way in helping shape the messaging approach that those officials take, which attempts to go far beyond the topline numbers released by the Labor or Commerce Departments at 8:30 a.m. ET the next morning. They say that work takes a significant amount of time, effort and fact checking before appearing in under 280 characters.
“We are trying to be useful in trying to figure out patterns that might not be clear just at a quick glance at 8:31 a.m.,” Gimbel said. “But then also using the opportunity to take a step back and think about broader trends.”
While each thread is packed with charts and data, there’s an effort to maintain a through line across multiple months – something that closely mirrors a caveat included in every single thread.
“It is important not to read too much into any one monthly report, and it is informative to consider each report in the context of other data as they become available,” read the final tweet of Friday’s thread.
Looking at the trends
Jobs day threads have kept an emphasis on charting the Labor Force Participation Rate – a variable that remains relatively static month-to-month, but over time can serve as an important barometer for progress.
The June jobs data was no different, even as the rate ticked down for all workers and prime-age workers. The next tweet sought to contextualize that, even after several stagnant months, “growth in labor force participation has been solid over the last 12 months.”
The reliance on a handful of regular metrics at times means there are fewer opportunities to break out a single piece of data or chart that may strike the team as interesting in a single month – a tough reality for the self-proclaimed nerds, but one that serves a purpose.
“One thing that we do try to do is not always get distracted by the cool chart of the month,” Gimbel said. “I think one thing that we’ve done that’s been helpful, is trying to have a couple of charts that we are consistently providing so that we’re helping people have frameworks that they’re putting on the data.”
The approach, even on days with bumpy or generally negative data, hasn’t garnered any pushback from a West Wing known for carefully, and at times arduously, calibrating its messaging.
Gimbel said she’s only received one edit to the threads since she’s been in the administration – a correction to a spelling error.
How a chart becomes a tweet
That doesn’t mean working in government doesn’t come with its own social media hurdles. White House officials aren’t allowed to use different Twitter-based apps, nor are they allowed to schedule tweets in advance given the extremely sensitive nature of the non-public data.
They’re also faced with an hour-long dark period between the public release of the data and when administration officials can start addressing it publicly.
Gimbel has since handed the reins of the account to a communications aide, so it’s Zehra Khan who is responsible for loading and sending the tweets, one by one, as soon as the clock hits 9:30 a.m. ET.
While many on the team have gone mostly silent on their personal Twitter accounts, Gimbel is not one of them. While the “Fire Elmo” GIF may be professionally retired (the CEA account strictly adheres to a policy of no interaction or participation in the real-time Twitter wars every day), it will occasionally pop up on her personal account.
But takes or research tied to the administration’s economic policy are indeed absent, at times replaced by live-tweeting of the Tony Awards. Gimbel’s colleagues note she had an excuse for clogging timelines on June 12: Her husband is a Tony-award winner.
Twitter, of course, is not the primary focus or focal point of Biden’s team of economists. Biden’s CEA, chaired by Cecilia Rouse, plays heavily in intensive administration economic policy debates, churns out research and produces the annual Economic Report of the President, which clocked in this year at 432 pages.
Both Boushey and Gimbel made clear that despite the #EconTwitter presence on staff, there are plenty on the team that carry pristine resumes and no Twitter account at all.
But the approach is tailored to a very specific audience – one that includes outside economists who can carry outsized weight when critical of the administration’s policies. Gimbel says one of the things she’s been most proud of is seeing outside economists take and use some of the very graphs or data points laid out in various threads for their own use.
It’s something that underscores the idea that it’s an approach designed with a much broader intent.
“If we aren’t helping the world understand and the media understand, and #EconTwitter understand, what the big economic challenges are of the day, how can we help the President understand so that we can actually do things that help the American people?” Boushey said. “Because that is our purpose.”