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Social Media and You, Part 3

Government and social media — What you need to know

By Susan Mustapich | Apr 08, 2021
Courtesy of: Alison McKellar Camden Select Board Vice Chair Alison McKellar uses social media to talk about important issues in the town.

This is part three of our three-part series, "Social Media and You." Parts one and two dealt with social media in the workplace and social media and teens. This part deals with social media in government. Parts one and two, sidebars and survey are linked below.

Like it, love it or hate it, most people and organizations use social media, including local governments and elected officials.

While grave concerns are being raised on the national level about social media’s impact on democracy, its use by local government as a communication tool has become commonplace.

Policies and rules on how social media is used by governments are also common. Government social media sites have been set by state and town governments and their departments. When these rules are in place, employees have to follow them.

The use of social media by individual elected officials has a few things in common with its use by governments, but also has significant differences.

Use of social media by governments and elected officials is considered public information, and regulated by laws that require the preservation of information for public use and access.

Just as important, what elected officials post on social media is protected free speech under the United States Constitution. Free speech protections also cover people commenting on official government social media sites. There are some limits on what can be posted, which will be covered later in this article.

This article covers some uses of social media by local governments, as well as two well-thought-out, though opposing views, about the use of social media by local elected officials.

Union’s Town Manager Jay Feyler has run the Facebook page, Union Maine USA, for about a decade. It’s a government official’s Facebook page, which is not the same as an official page for the town of Union. Feyler had it set up, under his own Facebook account, though it is separate from any personal Facebook page.

He uses Facebook for town or government purposes because it is a way to get information out quickly.

“People have Facebook on their phones, and they see it, if we post,” he said.

The page has about 1,650 followers. While not all the followers have to be Union residents, this is not a small number for a town of about 2,700 people.

He likens the speed of Facebook communication to a tool he used in the past, when he was Union’s emergency management director.

Using a Knox County EMA system, he could highlight a map of the town of Union on his computer, and send everyone an automatic message to their home phone. It would ring until someone answered. Now, no one has home phones anymore, he said.

Feyler likes to write and has a dry sense of humor. Both these qualities help make the Union Maine USA page a successful communication tool. “Put a little humor in there and put the message out, and people will follow you.”

He also has Iris, his photogenic dog, who he calls “the Boss.”

In a March 17 post, Iris sits patiently on a gray plush mat, the same color as her fur. She is wearing a blue paper mask, to push out the message, “We are almost there! Don't give up now! Stay safe and be sure to like and follow us on Facebook.”

Iris is also featured in a 2018 animation, where she talks and reminds everyone to get their local taxes in by the due date.

The Camden Police Department’s Facebook page is another popular local government department site with over 3,600 followers. Police Chief Randy Gagne and department sergeants are in charge of posting, and they also monitor the account, which allows comments.

Like Feyler, Gagne uses Facebook to get information out quickly. He likens it to the old call tree system, where one person calls three people, each of those three call another three people, and so on. When people look at a post and share it, it helps disseminate information "at warp speed," he said.

While a lot of posts are about road conditions, posts about criminal activity, such as car burglaries, and requests for help from the public, also pop up on the site.

Leading up to the November 2020 elections, the department posted requests for help from the public in an attempt to identify persons who were taking political signs from public and private property.

Other posts in 2020 featured bios and photos of the department’s officers.

Posts can be funny or convey deeper emotions, which help people see the human side of the officers, Gagne said.

He posted a comment on a recent bio for Lt. Michael Geary. “Lt Geary and I have spent 31 years together in the same department. We’ve come up through the ranks together and maybe we’ll retire together someday. He’s been my right hand man for many of those years."

In the summer of 2020, Gagne posted very serious and strong words.

After the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, he wrote: "I refer to those wearing a badge that day, who did nothing to stop this action, or to save Mr. Floyd’s life, as ‘individuals.’ Those are not police officers in my opinion. They are a cancer that has infiltrated our ranks.

As Chief of two wonderful departments I assure our citizens that our officers are all appalled by the actions of those ‘individuals’ in Minneapolis…. I have the utmost confidence in our officers that this type of behavior would never be allowed to happen or condoned in our agencies.”

Gagne’s post received many comments from community members. The majority, but not all, were very supportive, and many shared the post.

***

To allow comments or not to allow comments, is an important question for government Facebook accounts, as well as for social media accounts belonging to elected officials.

Comments on the Camden Police Department Facebook page are monitored, and while not often a problem, they can be removed, Gagne said. His guidance for those commenting is "keep it clean, keep it respectful, and don’t write anything you wouldn’t want your mother to read.”

Feyler’s Union Maine USA Facebook page was set up by an intern, who knew how to block all comments from being posted.

He was advised by legal counsel, if you allow any comments, you have to allow all comments. "We don’t discriminate, we don’t allow comments," he said.

The town does not have the staff to answer all the questions that would be posted. "If people ask you a question on Facebook and you don’t answer it, people will get upset," he said.

When people share a post from the Union Maine USA Facebook page, others can comment on the shared post. Not everyone understands Feyler cannot see comments on a shared post, so some may wonder why their question was not answered.

He has also seen controversy develop on shared posts. "Sometimes people would post things I wouldn’t say to a grandparent," he said.

There are grounds for removing comments from social media pages run by governments and departments. These grounds can be found in social media policies.

State of Maine policy for social media used for state business requires that “any scandalous, libelous, defamatory, or pornographic material, if posted, is removed as soon as discovered.”

The town of Camden does not have a social media policy. The town of Union has an email, internet and electronic communication policy, but it does not specifically mention social media.

Feyler advises selectmen they should not talk on Facebook about town business. By themselves they are just citizens. When there are three or more in an actual board, that’s when they make decisions. They can certainly talk to citizens and that’s their job, but trying to influence anything is kind of frowned upon, he said.

Another problem is, if selectmen get responses from citizens, but do not share them with the rest of the members. "If a Select Board member is for something, and they get comments against it, and they don’t share that, that’s where you get in trouble. People who comment feel the Select Board members will share that," he said.

The town of Lincolnville has a Social Media Policy, which dates to 2012, but the town government does not use social media accounts. The policy was written around the time the town was debating over whether or not to keep its police department, and is not often referred to, according to Town Administrator David Kinney.

If Lincolnville town government or departments were to use social media, it would have to be overseen by a social media supervisor, according to the policy. Content has to comply with a list of town and department policies and “any applicable codes of conduct.” Posts cannot discriminate, and cannot “engage in vulgar or abusive language, personal attacks of any kind, or offensive terms targeting individuals or groups.”

Lincolnville’s Social Media Policy refers to comments being “removed or not posted due to comment policy violations.” Any comments removed or not posted “should be documented by the moderator.”

***

The use of social media by elected officials at the national level has seen heated controversy, to the extent that it is seen as having a role in planning the storming of the Capitol building Jan. 6.

While local governments in Knox County are not engaged in partisan controversy, there are differing opinions on their use of social media as a tool to communicate with the public.

Ladleah Dunn, Chair of the Lincolnville Board of Selectmen, sees more harm than good in the use of social media by elected officials.

Alison McKellar, Vice Chair of the Camden Select Board, regularly uses social media to share information and generate discussion about local government business. She is an outspoken supporter of the use of social media as a communication tool.

Dunn and McKellar were asked the same questions about this topic. Their views clearly outline strong cases on both sides of the issue.

Dunn is in her ninth year on the Lincolnville Select Board.

Government is based on a system of checks and balances, with a certain amount of inefficiency built into the system, she said. How government is supposed to operate is agreed on by generations. There’s a social contract, involving a group of people agreeing to do town business with elected officials.

Social media turns that on its head, she said. She sees a lot of one-sided conversations and people seeking confirmation.

"While it feels really good to have a roomful of people agreeing with you, that’s not where positive change or long lasting effects take place," she said.

“Because it can be individually tailored depending on what filters you use, how public your account is and who your followers are, social media does not have the same level of transparency written into every level of government,” she said.

Dunn sees social media use by elected officials as “fairly incongruous with how we’re expected to act in every other way.”

“It’s not fair for me as one-fifth of an elected body to push my own agenda. I would never share my personal opinion in an official capacity as an elected official,” she said.

Her job is to not to persuade, but to give people every opportunity to educate themselves and come to their own conclusions without her influence, she said.

She feels “more strongly than ever that it is my job to put my needs at the end of the priority list and to consider first the most vulnerable and disenfranchised in our community, and work my way through the filter of all the people I represent.”

Additionally, technology and online platforms are something not everyone uses, she said. “We have folks here in Maine who don’t use email, let alone Facebook. It’s part of what I love about Maine, but for individuals and town governments that rely on social media, you’re missing out on communicating with your people,” she said.

Dunn sees some hope for social media's role in society in the future. "Just as traditional media has evolved and continues to be something we agree on how it functions, social media could become that," she said.

"But it would take time and effort for a lot of people to come to terms on how that would function and its lasting effects on us."

"You have to have these conversations for the use of social media to improve. It’s only going to improve as its users demand change."

McKellar sees social media as a method of communication and an essential tool for doing her job.

Through social media, information about municipal government and related issues is made accessible to a new group of people, according to McKellar. These are people who were not seen in the Washington St. Conference Room at Select Board meetings or at town meeting at the Opera House, even before the pandemic.

She uses her official Select Board Facebook page and her personal Facebook page to post information and seek public input. McKellar sets all of her posts to public, accepts all friend requests and anyone can comment.

Recent posts include Select Board agendas and a special January town meeting to approve energy upgrades to municipal buildings; videos of marine life underwater in Camden Harbor and flooding around the harbor at high tides and during storms; presentations on restoring rivers and fish habitats; and local storm-related parking bans.

She likens Facebook as a place to have conversations, similar to what could occur when someone stops to talk to a Select Board member at a playground or on the street.

She takes a different view than others on whether Facebook discussions are more or less inclusive than in-person Select Board and committee meetings.

She describes the public conversations at Select Board meetings during early evenings, or committees during the day, as working well for those who attend them, but as not accessible by large groups of people.

People who attend hearings and meetings may be “tuned into town government, on committees or have more time,” she said.

She further questions whether those who attend meetings in person are representative of the larger community.

People who do not attend public meetings “may not have time to bring their kids and wait for an agenda item to come up.” Others may not have “the personality to come to a public meeting and speak at a podium.” Others may have a very brief comment, question or some information they found in a link online to share.

The quality of input from a public meeting isn’t necessarily better or worse than input that comes in an email or from comments on social media, according to McKellar.

“As a Select Board, it’s our job to sift through opinions we hear everywhere, and to figure out what makes most sense to us.”

Her very active use of Facebook exposes her to new information she would not have been aware of.

“I’m never going to be as knowledgeable or effective on my own, without asking for help with a larger body of knowledge.” She sees the public as a resource to help officials make better decisions.

People who are participating in local government can get ruffled “when they hear that you have comments from people on Facebook. They don’t necessarily trust that information,” she said.

She counters this concern by pointing out you can see people’s actual names and opinions on Facebook and decide if something is worth taking into consideration, or not.

***

The social media accounts of elected officials are protected by the First Amendment. This goes for their official government accounts, as well as any other social media accounts where they post information, discussions or answer questions about business related to the government entity they represent. Comments, if allowed, are also protected by the First Amendment.

In 2018, legal cases were either settled or decided in favor of people who Gov. Paul LePage and President Donald Trump blocked from their social media pages, and whose comments were deleted.

The legal decision in the Trump case and settlement in the LePage case send a clear message. Government officials cannot block people or comments from their official social media sites, or any site where they discuss government business and issues, simply because they disagree with the people or their comments.

Two women who co-founded Suit Up Maine, Karin Leuthy and Kelli Whitlock Burton, challenged former Gov. LePage, when he deleted their comments and blocked them from his Facebook account. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, they took the issue to court, alleging LePage’s actions violated First Amendment rights.

The Leuthy case was settled by an agreement, due to the concern that LePage’s term was due to end Dec. 31, 2018, and it could be dismissed after he left office, according to Suit Up Maine.

The settlement required administrators of the Paul LePage, Maine’s Governor’s Facebook page to cease blocking constituents and deleting comments that did not violate the state social media standards, required Leuthy and Whitlock Burton to be unblocked, and created a process for others who have also been unfairly blocked to request that their posting privileges be restored.

Also in 2018, President Donald Trump lost a legal case in the State of New York when sued for deleting comments from his Twitter account that he did not like and blocking people who posted those comments.

Both LePage and Trump claimed the social media accounts were their own personal accounts, and not the official account of the Maine governor’s office or of the President of the United States.

Courts ruled against these claims, finding that if elected officials discuss government business on social media, those accounts become their official social media accounts. On these accounts, if elected officials allow comments, they cannot delete comments or block people simply because they disagree with their positions.

For further information on policies and legal issues involving government use of social media, see:

Maine State Government Social Media Policy

Suit Up Maine case against Governor LePage

When Can My City Delete a Facebook Comment? (and other social media questions)

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