Staff: Ethics in the Virtual World: October/November 2011

In this Article

Online Extra

Print Friendly
Man at a computer

By Natalie O’Donnell Wood

Be it via Facebook profiles, Twitter accounts, blogs or even texting, legislative staff seem to agree that social media, while important outreach and networking tools, can be confusing and tough to monitor, and can raise more questions than answers.

Staff members discussed the ethical challenges they’ve encountered as state legislatures move rapidly into the area of social media with NCSL’s Center for Ethics in Government at the Legislative Summit in August.

A few common concerns and questions emerged from the discussion.

Public vs. Private

The first concern staff had is the difficulty in discerning what kinds of communication are “public” when social media are thrown into the mix. If a caucus staffer tweets from the chamber floor about a partisan strategy prior to a vote, should that information become part of the public record? What if legislators are relaying tweets, believing they are private?

When statements are made using social media they cannot be retracted. They are, essentially, public. Facebook status updates or blog postings can be deleted, but once you say it, you can’t take it back.

It also can be difficult to know whether someone is using social media for a personal or public purpose. If a legislative employee uses a Facebook page mainly for personal reasons, yet lists the legislature as his employer, should that affect how people look at statements he makes on the page? Should the “friends” he has be scrutinized? Or should he steer clear of any reference to the legislature? If a legislature tries to limit what an employee says on Facebook, might that be a violation of free speech?

From an ethical standpoint, perhaps responsibility for things said on these media belongs with the person saying them. “A good purpose does not make it a legislative purpose,” said one participant. And, even though it’s legal, it may not be ethical or, at the very least, prudent.

Lack of Control

A second concern voiced by staff centered on the ability, or inability, of the legislature to control the use of social media. There was a shared feeling that the institution can control only certain aspects of virtual conversations. If a legislator or staff member is using a state-owned laptop or smartphone, should the legislature have oversight on how they are used?

Or should personal communications on state-owned equipment remain private, with legislators and staff being “custodians of their own records,” so to speak.

Rules and guidelines can help, staff said, but legislatures should craft policies only on what they can control—official state legislative websites or caucus blogs, for example. Action beyond this scope could lead to trouble.

Although social media can be valuable tools for outreach and communication for public officials, some staffers believe social media don’t belong under a legislature’s purview since they don’t “belong” to the legislature.

Too Fast?

A third difficulty expressed was the tension between social media’s fast-paced nature and the deliberation that public speaking and constituent communication, even virtually, requires.

Tweeting in real time can give an issue an air of authenticity, when, in fact, the tweet was just an interpretation of the issue. Problems can occur in situations where reporters use tweets as facts.
In the interest of immediacy, common sense is often overlooked when using social media. Staffers agreed there is a general lack of thought as to how these sites affect the way people interact. People can be anonymous or even falsely represent themselves. You can never know for sure who you are actually communicating with. And there’s no way to know who all will eventually receive and read your messages. Ethically speaking, staff participants in the discussion agreed with one staffer’s closing thought: What matters is not the medium, but the content. “Take the technology out of it—it is behavior and language that matter.”

When it comes to making ethical decisions in the context of social media, those serving and working in state legislatures still should conduct themselves in ways that maintain the public’s confidence, uphold the institution, and demonstrate sound judgment.

In less than 140 characters, this may be a message worth tweeting.

Natalie O’Donnell Wood is a program principal in NCSL’s Center for Ethics in Government.