CivicPlus Blog

Understanding the Risks of Social Media for Local Governments

Posted by Angie Marquart

Sep 26, 2012 4:44:00 PM


social media riskGuest blog by Paul Rubell, Esq.

Engage your citizens in the community; make them part of the political process. It's an ever-growing expectation that many governments are struggling to keep up with, and social media is the emerging trend to accomplish digital citizen engagement.

The benefits of social media engagement are great; however, there are obstacles to overcome and issues to contend with before diving into the social media scene.

This blog looks at the downside risks, and ways governments can reduce them.

1.  Content and Free Speech.

The double-edged sword of letting your citizens talk: They will talk, and you cannot control what they will say...or can you?

Censorship always sounds ugly, but sometimes you really need to moderate a conversation. Free speech is a foundation of our society.

If you give one person a forum to speak, you have to give that same forum to everyone. Also, you have to apply the same rules to everyone. That’s called uniformity. At a public meeting, you can limit speaking time to, say, three minutes. And on a social media site, you can limit postings to, say, Twitter’s 140 character rule.

But you also have to put some brakes on the process. You can’t permit criminality (child pornography, for example); you can’t promote illegal behavior; you have to be able to edit vulgar material; you have to remove personal information.

But what you cannot do is censor based on content. You cannot stop a person from speaking their mind or stating their political views. That is impermissible censorship.

In a public meeting, you might censor by trying to make a speaker sit down or leave the room. It’s so much easier and more tempting online; on your social media site, all you need to do is…delete.

Unfortunately, that’s not allowed. In fact, a judge in Hawaii has ruled about this in a recent lawsuit.

2.  Who controls your social media accounts? 

Someone on your staff has to manage your government social media accounts. You need to give careful thought to selecting the right employee. Errors do occur. How can you avoid errors?

First, think about your choice. An employee with an appointed position may have limited employment protections, but a civil service employee may have job protection.  One of these employees may be more diligent, based on job concerns.

Also, intentional “errors” also happen. A politically motivated employee might bend the rules about censorship. Don’t let social media become politically charged.

Think about your selection of social media manager. Consider oversight.

3.  Be careful about your own content.

Social media lets you reach more people, and let's you do it inexpensively. But content is the key. Quality, not quantity.

You should not post personal information. End of story.

You need to be careful about data storage. If you’re going to keep postings online, you have to safeguard it. Cyber security is the new standard to prevent hacking. It’s not just your own information that’s sitting in cyberspace; it’s also information posted by your citizens. Their email addresses and personally identifiable data is probably sitting within their posted information too, unseen by social media readers but accessible to hackers.

Don't create account passwords that are too simple, as tempting as that can be.

4.  Who owns your social media account?

This sounds like a silly question...of course you own the account; it’s the government’s. That’s who bought the domain, and pays for it, and staffs it. But there’s more to ownership than payment or control.

One employee may use social media to promote their employer, the government agency. Another employee, though, might use social media for personal use.

Is your staff posting personal comments on the organization's Twitter site? Or is staff posting employer information on their personal sites? Are the postings taking place while at work, or during off time? Is the public being confused or misled?

5.  Do you have a written social media policy?

The solution to all of these problems is to establish a social media policy statement. A policy can protect you and the government from legal liability, and can help you deal effectively with unwanted conduct.

A well-written policy will clearly state the ground rules of your social media site. This provides uniformity; every citizen user will know that they will be treated the same as everyone else. No better, no worse.

It also creates transparency; everyone understands the rules. And you cannot be faulted for enforcing rules that you have made evident to the world.

A social media policy assures accountability. You are responsible for your online behavior, and the consequences are stated plainly.

Jumping on the social media bandwagon is a great way to promote your agency and achieve results. But don’t jump recklessly. You need to think carefully about what you are trying to accomplish, and how you’re going about it. 

Paul is an Equity Partner with business law firm Meltzer, Lippe, Goldstein, and Breitstone, LLP. Mr. Rubell practices in the firm's Corporate Law, Social Media, and Cloud Computing Groups, and advises entrepreneurs, businesses and governments about  strategic planning, cloud computing, new media, and emerging technology. He is a Special Professor of Law at Hofstra University School of Law, where he teaches corporate law and contract writing. Mr. Rubell lectures and writes extensively about business law, corporate governance, and technology law. He can be reached at prubell@mlg.com or (212) 201-1720.

Topics: digital community engagement, social media, transparency