Social Media’s Pitfalls for Government

There's a lot at risk when people in government use their private accounts for public business.
January 9, 2018
Person on Facebook on their couch.
(Shutterstock)
By Hana Callaghan  |  Contributor
Director of the Government Ethics Program at Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Nextdoor offer governments and their agencies great ways to communicate with constituents and to encourage civic engagement. To facilitate these efforts, some cities have even encouraged their employees to spread the good municipal word via the workers' personal accounts as "social media ambassadors."

But while that's a cost-effective way to extend the reach of the governmental message, making employees de facto agents of government in their private lives is a terrible idea. Blurring the line between public and private social-media interaction is already having unintended and undesirable consequences.

President Trump, our Tweeter-in-Chief, provides a prime example of the use of private social media by a public official that is giving government lawyers headaches. The White House has declared that tweets from the president's private account are "official statements." Does this mean that Trump's tweets fall under the Presidential Records Act (PRA), which requires preservation of presidential documents? What happens if the president or his agent removes a tweet? Does this violate the PRA? Can the president block someone from his Twitter feed without violating his ethical duty of fairness and impartiality? And if a private individual takes down the president's Twitter account, as happened briefly in November, should that be considered an attack against the government?

Those aren't the only questions raised by government officials' use of social media. In Arizona, a constituent sued her representative in Congress after he blocked her from his personal Facebook page due to her critical commentary. The congressman said that because the Facebook page is his private account he can block whomever he pleases. The constituent argued that since the congressman was using his private Facebook page in his official capacity to reach constituents and conduct public business, the page was an instrumentality of the government and her right to free speech had been violated. After initially calling the claim "hogwash," the congressman reinstated the constituent.

The use of social media by government has also raised questions involving transparency. For example, in California a 1953 law requires that prior notice of local-government meetings be given and that the meetings be open to the public. Emails among a quorum of city council members discussing public business have been held to be illegal meetings under the law. So if those same council members hop onto someone's private social media account and discuss public business, will the result be the same?

Similarly, in a recent case from San Jose, Calif., the state Supreme Court held that when local public officials discuss public business on private email accounts those emails are subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act. It seems a good bet that discussing government business on private Facebook accounts would subject officials to the same public scrutiny.

The city of Seattle got in hot water last year when it held an online town hall meeting on the social platform Nextdoor. The moderator for Nextdoor suspended a blogger/journalist from using the site after she posted other people's comments on her blog. Nextdoor said the blogger's actions violated its privacy policy. However, as in California, under Washington state law government meetings are supposed to be open and transparent, and communications with government are deemed to be public records. Upon review, the company reinstated the blogger and concluded that "Nextdoor is not the best platform for a public town hall."

Finally, does it violate notions of fairness to ask government employees to become social media ambassadors? Many of us feel that our social-media accounts are our own personal place to communicate with our friends and families. These platforms provide an online home. If an organization, be it public or private, asks its employees to use their private accounts for the organization's agenda, will employees feel compelled to allow this invasion into their private space in order to keep their jobs?

Social media does indeed provide many opportunities for engagement. However, in the government context use of social media can also create many traps for the unwary. Government organizations should consider the legal and ethical implications whenever embracing new ways to communicate.