Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Is Social Media a Friend or Foe of Government?

Jeffrey Horne wasn't new to social media. He liked using Facebook and Twitter to keep up with friends and had dabbled some in blogging. Early...

Jeffrey Horne wasn't new to social media. He liked using Facebook and Twitter to keep up with friends and had dabbled some in blogging. Early last year, when he was the city administrator of Mitchellville, Iowa, he got to thinking that Facebook could be a good thing for civic engagement, too. Horne created a Facebook "fan page" for Mitchellville. He knew that not everyone in the town of 2,300 was on Facebook. But he figured that those who were might enjoy using the popular Web site to communicate with their local government.

The experiment started out well. About 30 citizens became "fans" of Mitchellville, allowing them to see news from the town alongside the updates of neighbors, colleagues and old classmates with whom they were Facebook friends. Then trouble started. One grumbling resident used the page to post complaints. Horne had a hard time keeping up with who was joining the conversation and moderating the comments. The page became a free-for-all, and more irritation than Horne thought it was worth. He deleted it altogether. "It just didn't work well," Horne says.

While Mitchellville is no longer on Facebook, it's hard to ignore the fact that more than 100 million Americans are. Citizens increasingly go there and to other social-media platforms such as MySpace, LinkedIn and Twitter to connect with old acquaintances, find out what their friends are reading, and pass time playing popular virtual games like FarmVille. These are no longer kids' toys--the fastest growing demographic of Facebook users is people age 35 and older.

There's evidence that Americans want to use social media to connect with government, too. A 2009 report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that one in five Internet users searched for political information, posted their views about issues or engaged in another civic activity on a social network. "I think people realize this is no longer a fad," Alan Shark, executive director of the Public Technology Institute, says of social media. "This is a way of life."

Last year, Shark's organization surveyed chief information officers of local governments about their social-media plans. Some 72 percent of those who responded said they were currently using Facebook or Twitter in outreach efforts, or planned to do so. There are other signs that the public sector is getting on these sites. GovTwit, a commonly used directory of government Twitter accounts, has close to 1,000 of them listed with the "state-local" tag. And while it's almost impossible to say exactly how many state or local government profiles exist on Facebook, a casual look around the site will turn up dozens of pages for governments or individual agencies.

Yet for every fan page or account created, it seems there's another city or state holding back from social media. Many officials are simply worried that Web 2.0 experiments will spiral out of control, as Horne's did. But there also are a lot of legal risks and management concerns involved. For example, should government-posted content on a third-party Web site be considered public record? Who owns the content, and does it need to be archived? If advertisements show up on a government fan page, does it imply that the state, city or county is endorsing the advertised product? And how should officials handle rude or libelous comments?

Social media is new enough that there aren't yet clear answers to all of these questions. But some guidelines are beginning to emerge that may help government officials figure out how to interact with their online friends, fans and followers.

One set of guidelines comes from Florida. Last year, Coral Springs Mayor Scott Brook wanted to create a Facebook profile for his city. Putting up the profile, Brook knew, would be simple enough. But publishing information under the city's banner isn't. Most such activity is covered by public records laws. Mayor Brook talked it over with Samuel Goren, the city attorney. Goren wasn't sure how to play it either, so he decided to ask Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum for his opinion about how local governments should approach Facebook.

McCollum's response caught the attention of many local officials across Florida. As long as the page was created for a municipal purpose (as validated by the city commission), a Facebook page could stand, he said. But there were a few rules to go by. For example, city commissioners could not make online comments to each other on issues that might go before the board, on the grounds that such communication would violate sunshine laws.

Another issue had to do with friends of the city's Facebook profile. Would their online information be subject to open-records laws? Probably so, McCollum concluded, at least if the information had been "made or received in connection with the transaction of official business by or on behalf of a public agency such as the city." To be safe, McCollum advised that Coral Springs place a warning about the public records law both on its Facebook page and on its city Web site.

One local official in Florida felt the attorney general's opinion wasn't cautious enough. Ft. Lauderdale City Attorney Harry Stewart released his own opinion on the matter a few weeks after McCollum did. Stewart discouraged Ft. Lauderdale's mayor, vice mayor and commissioners from participating on Facebook, citing the risk of violating public records and sunshine laws. He also expressed concern about how information on Facebook would be archived and how long it would stay there. "I'm not telling them 'Don't go on Facebook,'" Stewart says. "I'm telling them to be very, very, very careful."

For the most part, state and local governments have been navigating these questions on their own. In Rhode Island, for example, it's up to each state agency to determine for itself whether Facebook, Twitter or any other service is worth using and whether the terms of service are acceptable. The state of Utah created its own "acceptable use" provisions for social media. Similarly, the city of Virginia Beach, Virginia, created terms of use for engaging with Facebook and Twitter and ran it by the city attorney. Employees who post items on these sites on behalf of the city also make sure to remind followers of the city's usage rules by regularly reposting them.

Doug Robinson, executive director of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), says several states have approached him with questions about these issues. One of the things NASCIO is doing to help states navigate the risks is to convene an ad hoc group of lawyers, deputy state CIOs, and technology and policy professionals. The group is trying to put together some formal guidelines for states on issues regarding governing laws, liability and endorsements.

A complicating factor is that sites such as Facebook and Twitter have terms of service of their own. When users sign up, they agree to abide by those rules. As state and local governments write their own terms of use for social media, there's a question as to whose rules prevail: those of the government or those of the site? If it were the sites' terms, that would mean almost all disputes over social media would be heard in California, where most of them are based.

Last year, the federal government reached agreement with Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Vimeo and, essentially resolving federal agencies' concerns about liability, endorsements, freedom of information and governing laws. (The feds did not need to pursue an agreement with Twitter because its rules were deemed compatible with federal use.) NASCIO hopes its proceedings will produce similar agreements between social-media sites and the states.

Whatever comes of these efforts, governments will always face some element of risk when using social media. Nobody has control over what their Facebook friends do -- that's the fun and the flaw of Web 2.0 for governments. Then again, when citizens go to the microphone at a council meeting, nobody has control over them, either. Social media will continue to evolve and mature. And as it becomes more intertwined in Americans' lives, it will become more intertwined in how they engage with their state and local governments.

That's still what Jeffrey Horne believes. Horne has moved on to a new position as city administrator of Clinton, Iowa. And while the memory of his Facebook flop in Mitchellville remains fresh in his mind, he's intent on figuring out a way to use social media to engage citizens. He thinks Twitter could be useful for broadcasting alerts to citizens when there's, say, sewer work they should know about. Horne says, "I don't think there will be much of an issue with this."

Tina Trenkner is the Deputy Editor for She edits the Technology and Health newsletters.
Special Projects