In the current age of technology it sometimes feels like social media interweaves with every element of people’s lives. Still, local governments must tread carefully when choosing to integrate Facebook and other social media channels with their web services.
This is a dilemma Park County is facing head-on as it considers instituting a social media policy with 5-10 possible rules.
“You just can’t ignore it anymore. It’s so prevalent,” Park County Commission chair Jake Fulkerson said. “Ignoring it is not an option.”
Facebook currently has 2.37 billion users. Twitter and Instagram have a combined 1.3 billion.
“Social media is getting huge and it would be nice to have somebody not make a mistake because we didn’t have something that said you’re not supposed to use your personal device for business or vice-versa,” commissioner Lloyd Thiel said.
Michael Conners, chief information officer for Park County, warned that building a policy can raise more questions than answers because Facebook is a whole problem in itself.
“Facebook is a nightmare for security, you just can’t keep it secure,” he said.
Currently, Park County employees can not access social media sites like Facebook on work computers.
The Park County’s Sheriff’s Office, Public Works Department, and Events and Fair are the only county entities to run a Facebook page, but they are all run from private, personal devices. Hans Odde, deputy Park County clerk said his department will likely also make a Facebook page for the 2020 election.
One of the difficulties that arises from creating a governmental social media page is that certain county employees are responsible for managing it.
What happens to the page after those employees leave the county for a different job can also be ambiguous. It is often in these scenarios that a page will become dormant, but if a managing employee is terminated, the situation can become even worse.
Laws also get tricky when elected officials create their own Facebook pages.
“As an elected official that … account … is your public expression,” Conners said.
Fulkerson said many officials create two separate accounts, but if there is no clear delineation between an official’s public and private page, it can be viewed as withholding public information if they delete a friend or follower.
“If you delete somebody you’re cutting somebody off from public information,” Fulkerson said.
This predicament recently occurred to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. after she blocked two followers on Twitter and was sued in federal court. A federal appeals court in July also found President Donald Trump violated the first amendment by blocking critics on Twitter.
“The most important part of this is all awareness,” commissioner Dossie Overfield said. “You don’t need many rules just to make sure everyone is being careful.”
Issues get even more complicated when people share posts made by government officials onto separate pages and there’s also some ambiguity regarding governmental board members “liking” information on Facebook, and whether that counts as a public meeting.
At a recent Wyoming Association of County Officers conference, the commissioners received guidance on this issue.
WACO recommends county officials and employees put a disclaimer on private pages stating it as such. But in today’s world, this may only go so far.
“If the wrong person wants to sue you’re going to get sued no matter what,” Thiel said.
Fulkerson said one county told of a recent scenario where a citizen posted obscenities in response to a post on its road and bridge department page. He said by deleting those comments the county technically violated the poster’s civil rights.
“And nobody knew,” Fulkerson said with a laugh.
But if the county posts a warning disclaimer that it reserves the right to delete inflammatory comments beforehand, this appears to alleviate most of the burden. The Park County Sheriff’s Office has such a mention included with its’ popular “Warrant Wednesday” posts.
County staff and commissioners must also determine whether it’s acceptable for an employee to attack the county on their private page, and or post sensitive information. Conners said this has been reported in a few instances across the country and Fulkerson said this was occurring within the Cody School District about five years ago.
“Teachers we’re blasting (school) administration on their own Facebook pages,” he said.