Government officials are increasingly engaging the public through social media platforms. From Facebook Live videos to posting links on Twitter to connecting with younger audiences via Instagram and Snapchat, social media has completely changed the way the public connects with its lawmakers and potential lawmakers.
But while social media can promote elements like stances on different issues, information on new policies, or promoting a brand, it can also expose the downside of being in the political spotlight. And now that social media use is considered to be state action, it’s important for political professionals to make sure they are using any and all social media platforms with the best intentions in mind.
While controversies surrounding social media use can pop up and stay alive online, there are still some practices that public officials can use in order to keep their digital name, their political reputation, and their personal reputation as intact as possible.
Public officials don’t surrender their First Amendment-protected rights by entering into the public service arena. If they’d like to, they can maintain a personal social media presence and use their accounts to discuss everyday things like family, entertainment, sports, and anything else. When lawmakers keep personal accounts, they are free to block followers from their personal accounts, unlike accounts used for official purposes, and post what they would like.
For public officials who do indeed use their social media accounts for official purposes, they are restricted from doing some of the things they could do with personal accounts. If they don’t wish to be bound by the First Amendment, they should not use their social media accounts as an extension of their office.
Not everyone is going to agree with a lawmaker’s stance on certain issues, and they’re not going to find support among every single voter. This can be amplified online with social media. If a public official uses an official account, they are not only not allowed to block users, but they are prohibited from deleting comments.
Just because someone disagrees with a public official does not mean they can be silenced. In fact, it’s protected by the Constitution. Multiple courts have held that social media accounts used for official purposes are considered public forums where members of the public are allowed to speak by replying to tweets or other posts. The main point of advice here: if public officials use their social media accounts for official purposes, they shouldn’t discriminate on the basis of different viewpoints or opinions.
While public officials can’t make everyone side with them, especially via a digital platform, crossing the line and posting offensive and potentially criminal posts should not happen. While this may go without saying, public officials should not post such things as violent or sexual posts, which can actually carry legal controversies along with them.
When former congressman Anthony Weiner (D-NY) sent a sexually suggestive image to a young college student from his public account, it sparked other victims coming forward with more images and videos sent to them online. Weiner resigned from his position and eventually served jail time for sending this kind of content to an underage girl.
These types of situations may be few and far between, but they do happen. They can present the potential for public officials to be embroiled in scandals, but they can also cause the public to lose trust in lawmakers altogether. Public officials should use social media with caution, using it as an extension of themselves to connect with their supporters and those who oppose them, not for lewd reasons or for personal gain in any way.
To prevent these mistakes, elected officials should be sure to implement oversight policies that include multiple steps of review before any post goes online. This can help them avoid potential legal matters as well as political losses.
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