In one Minneapolis department, a city employee creates a Facebook page from home to share information and answer constituent questions. In another municipal division, a summer intern opens a site to share photos of youth programs, but the site is still out there long after the young worker has left city employment. Meanwhile, a City Council member continues to use the personal social media accounts he had before his election — now for city-related business.
These examples demonstrate how chaotic and difficult it can be to track city online communications. That’s why an effort to set clearer, more consistent policies for city use of social media is sensible and needed.
Greta Bergstrom, director of the Minneapolis communications office, says the city should have better coordination and oversight of social media activities. Her department has drafted an updated policy that will be presented to a council committee next week.
Bergstrom told an editorial writer that the new policy will, for the first time, apply to the mayor and City Council members as well as board and commission members. It will cover the 4,000-plus Minneapolis employees and “anyone who does work on behalf of the city.”
A draft overview of the policy calls for the communications office to approve social media sites and have access to the accounts. Her staff would also archive social media activity — including deleted or corrected posts and exchanges with the public. That kind of record keeping for government activities is required by law.
Stronger city rules could also address a more recent example of confusion between personal and official use of social media: Council Member Alondra Cano said she was within her rights to block some journalists from her Twitter account, because it’s a personal account. However, she uses that same account to discuss city activities and interact with constituents.
In a related action earlier this week, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that President Donald Trump’s frequent tweets were official in nature, and it was thus unconstitutional for him to block critical comments. An earlier court determined the distinction between private and personal social media handles didn’t matter, ruling that Trump’s staff violated the First Amendment when they blocked people from his “personal” Twitter account.
Should it stand, the court decision could broadly affect online political discourse. “The government is not permitted to ‘amplify’ favored speech by banning or burdening viewpoints with which it disagrees,” the court said.
The decision is consistent with part of what the Minneapolis proposed policy seeks to address. It should help clarify when elected officials are operating on social media in their official capacities rather than as private citizens.
Council Member Abdi Warsame, who expects to author a final version of the policy, called that difference a “a gray area that can cause problems.” He said officials should not use personal social media accounts for city business and then block critical users. “Then you’re stifling information,” he said.
Social media platforms are now integral to the way politicians and government communicate with the public. City officials are right to develop more consistent guidelines for how online tools are used by city employees.