Social media has completely transformed how legislators and their staff are informed and interact with the public. Through social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, our elected officials share insights into the legislative process, communicate with people, and even provide updates during times of crisis. However, public officials’ social media use isn’t without its downside as political, legal, and reputational hazards abound. To mitigate the risks posed by social media mistakes, federal agencies, social media companies, and elected officials’ associations have all pushed better social media use policies. Simultaneously, few resources provide a comprehensive catalog of the risks public officials and their staff may encounter without implementing social media best practices. Here is a look at some social media tips for public officials to avoid improper use and avoid potential legal trouble.
One of the most essential tips for social media use, and one that goes without saying, is not to post offensive photos or content. One hasty social media post—be it a photo, reply, retweet—can have dire consequences on a public official’s standing. Social media scandals plague party lines and levels of government. Public scrutiny is not limited to posts made while in office either, as some politicians’ past posts are brought up.
To prevent these mishaps, elected public officials should implement oversight policies that include multiple review phases before a post goes out to the world. A review mechanism helps to catch typos and provides another filter through which staff evaluates a post’s tone.
Especially true when it comes to business use, public officials should avoid using private accounts at all costs. Blurring the line between public and private social media interaction presents several unintended and undesirable consequences. It makes transparency and legal boundaries hard to differentiate.
Public officials should not use a private Facebook page in an official capacity or for public business. In the state of California, for example, the Supreme Court rules that when local public officials use private emails for public businesses, the content is subject to disclosure.
Citizens want to stay informed and want to be able to reach out to their elected officials in ways they see fit. Blocking people from social media accounts is seen as a violation of First Amendment rights because someone is being blocked from speech before it happens and is denied access to public information.
When elected officials block their users, they run the risk of violating freedom of speech and prevent certain people from seeing important information that would otherwise be public. If this happens, public officials face the potential for legal problems to occur.
If public officials use social media accounts for official business, they need to adopt policies for the account and post those policies. Posting policies publicly lets their followers and the public, in general, know how they intend to use the account, and how they hope others will use the forum established by the account.
A policy needs to explain the general purposes the account serves, any limitations on what users may post, and how the public official intends to address violations of those limitations. Public officials need to make their policies clear and be especially careful with the words they use to describe any guidelines on what users may post in comment threads, for example.
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