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Monday, June 24, 2013

Different Rules for Government Use of Social Media

I just returned from presenting two sessions on local governments and social media at the Arkansas Municipal League conference in Hot Springs. The first session was directed to municipal officers, and the second to municipal attorneys. I started both presentations with a summary of the benefits of government use of social media.  It's not hard to sell local governments on the benefits of social media. They recognize that social media is a cost-effective and efficient way to disseminate information and engage citizens in government business.  Municipalities, school districts, park districts, and other local governments are taking to social media like gangbusters - posting about local events on Facebook, tweeting about road closures, and uploading their meetings to YouTube. 
So, why do I feel like the bad guy after I present a session to local government officials and attorneys about social media?  
Probably because the bulk of my presentation (and all of the questions from the audience) deal with the legal and ethical issues with government use of social media.  Everybody enjoys hearing the "pros" about social media, but it's not as much fun to hear the "cons."  I happen to love potato chips, and wish I could eat them every day.  But, like everyone else, I have heard the "cons" about eating too much junk food.  Well, sometimes I feel like the "junk food police" for social media, telling government officials all the bad things that can happen if they eat too many potato chips (i.e., conduct themselves inappropriately on social media).   
Just like corporate and individual users, governments encounter many of the same legal and ethical issues when they engage in social media activities, including copyrights, individual privacy, employee usage and monitoring, among others. There are, however, a number of issues that are unique to governments, such as First Amendment protections, compliance with Open Meetings and Freedom of Information laws, and record retention requirements, just to name a few.  
An individual who doesn't like a particular comment on their Facebook page can simply delete it.  A municipality, on the other hand, must consider whether that comment is constitutionally protected speech before taking any action that could be considered censorship.   Members of a corporate board aren't concerned about triggering statutory "meeting" requirements when they participate in an online discussion, unlike their government board counterparts who could inadvertently trigger these requirements simply by posting comments to Facebook.  Governments must also ensure that their constituents have equal access to government information, including information provided electronically and digitally.  The rules are simply different for local governments engaging in social media communications, making it that much more important that municipal officials and employees understand what those rules are, so they can adjust their social media activities and conduct accordingly.
In a perfect world, a local government would carefully draft a social media policy to deal with employee monitoring and usage, administration of the sites, terms of use for commenters and other users before they establish a presence on a social media site.  That same local government would also conduct training session for municipal officers, department heads, and employees about appropriate use of social media before they "go live."  That doesn't always happen, of course.  It's not too late to get a policy on the books, and train your employees. 

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