Blog, Tweet and Post: Proceed With Caution: October/November 2011
Social media tools can pose ethical problems for lawmakers.
By Judy Nadler
The casual and lightning-fast nature of social media makes it an easy and inexpensive tool for public officials.
Despite the many advantages these new technologies bring, there also are thorny ethical considerations, such as blurring the lines between personal and public information and privacy. How can new communications technologies be used effectively but ethically to engage citizens? Consider these two hypothetical cases, based on real experiences.
When Shirley ran for the legislature, her campaign advisers set up a website, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and a blog. The cost of creating and maintaining her web presence was borne by her campaign. The content was devoted to policy statements, endorsements, media clips, a calendar of personal appearances, and photos and videos with the public.
Her greatest exposure came through Facebook. By the end of the campaign, her Facebook page had thousands of “friends” and hundreds of postings about her campaign.
Shirley shut down the campaign website but decided to keep the popular Facebook account, and began to post legislative messages and constituent polls. The task of maintaining her Facebook page was assigned to a staff member, who worked on it during regular office hours. A “push” was organized to add key lobbyists, government contractors and others as “friends.”
Several ethical issues arose after the election.
- Can a government official use Facebook as a way to discuss public issues?
- If so, can an official limit access to such a Facebook page in any way?
- Do all members of the public have a right to see what is on a publicly maintained Facebook page? What about a completely personal one?
- Can an officeholder “unfriend” certain individuals or remove selected posts on a publicly maintained Facebook page?
- If a Facebook page is completely personal, must the official confine all comments to personal rather than public matters?
Lance was an assemblyman representing a high-technology district and was an early adopter of social media. His primary means of communicating with his constituents was his blog. A Twitter account was mostly for fun, and he used it to chat about his family and to share banter with many of his friends and followers.
As chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, Lance found himself in the middle of a fierce lobbying effort from employee unions, social service agencies, and the state school system, among others. In his daily blog posts, he tried to explain the complexity of the issues, discuss the difficult choices facing the state, and encourage input from the public through the comment feature of the blog.
His attempts at civil discourse were shattered when an increasing number of anonymous comments were very critical of his position on the issues, and often misquoted or misrepresented his proposals or voting record. At one point, the negative comments outweighed the positive two to one—and several were nothing more than personal attacks.
The social media experts he consulted suggested a system requiring stricter guidelines—registration requiring a valid name and email address—but he was concerned the extra steps would dissuade the legitimate dialogue he was seeking.
A good friend offered to monitor the blog comments and remove all that disagreed with the assemblyman’s positions.
This experience, too, raised ethical issues.
- What ethical guidelines should Lance use in maintaining his blog?
- Is the use of social media itself an obstacle for constituents who do not have access to technology?
- Does the anonymity of the comments and tone suggest he should eliminate the blog, or are these posts part of the “rough-and-tumble” world of a legislator?
- What problems might be solved if his friend monitored the blog and made it more positive? What problems might be created?
- Does the public have a right to see all blog and Twitter postings by a legislator?
Access is a fundamental ethical principle in government. New media can improve access to and from citizens by expanding the number and variety of channels of communication, but these same media can simultaneously restrict access or favor certain constituencies. The medium will change over time, so we should develop principles that can guide us on whatever platform develops in the future. Open access is an ethical starting point.
The Facebook page in the first example opens the potential for restricting or favoring access for particular groups. If the site is restricted to “friends” only, then it could run afoul of principles of open government. This is particularly of concern if the site is maintained with public funds. It can also be improper if it is promoted only to a narrow group of interests before the legislature.
Access to a purely personal Facebook page can probably be restricted to a few real friends, but the officeholder needs to be very cautious that the “friends” and the talk on that page are indeed personal and not political.
A second critical ethical principle is the public’s right to know. An officeholder’s blog or Facebook site are particularly vulnerable to the extreme rhetoric often seen at public meetings and rallies, only with greater anonymity and distance.
Any officeholder would be wise to establish both a registration process to tone down the most extreme rhetoric and a set of clear guidelines about the kind of inflammatory language that is banned from the site. The credibility of the site as a vehicle for public dialogue would suffer if all critical comments about the office holder were excised. The public’s right to know probably requires that a determined reporter or citizen be permitted to view even the most vile, profane and racist comments if they wish to do so—perhaps by visiting the legislator’s office in person.
A third principle is the obligation to choose one’s own words prudently. The immediate nature of social media places a special obligation on the officeholder to use them with caution. Great damage can be done to others, often inadvertently, by a comment posted with little thought and based on early and possibly erroneous information.
Old-fashioned vetting and review by a legislator’s staff may be missing if the officeholder tweets or blogs directly. And an officeholder’s “tweet” is much more likely to be passed on or quoted in other media.
Judy Nadler, former mayor of Santa Clara, Calif., is a senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. For more information, visitwww.scu.edu/ethics or subscribe to the government ethics blog www.scu.edu/herhonor.