Just like physical documents and emails, government social media conversations and interactions are considered public data. But while many agencies have invested in automated tools to help them mine platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to fulfill Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, there haven’t been a high volume of them.
Seattle and Austin, Texas, both use services to archive digital activity and communications. Yet, representatives from both cities told Government Technology that they rarely receive any public information requests for social media postings.
“We’re not currently [and] I think part of that is most of it is public already,” said Sabra Schneider, director of electronic communications for Seattle. “So people who want to see the records, can. We haven’t had any requests for social media records since April 2013.”
Seattle uses a decentralized approach to answering FOIA requests, with each department responding to inquiries. But the city’s new chief technology officer, Michael Mattmiller, noted that since Seattle uses an archival tool called Backupify to capture social media posts and messages, those departments likely would have needed to contact his office for the data.
Schneider added that a big reason why there aren’t many requests for social media data is because the platforms aren’t considered the primary record for city information. Most of Seattle’s official information is posted in news releases or blog posts, so there isn’t a lot of “new data” in social media, except for public comments and direct messages from the public to the respective city accounts.
Seattle's IT team may not have gotten any requests, but the city's police department has. The Seattle Police Department's twitter account, @SeattlePD, received a request for archived tweets earlier this year.
Austin, Texas, uses ArchiveSocial to retain a historical record of its social media activity. But not all the departments in the city are covered by the system, including the Austin City Council. Doug Matthews, the city’s chief communications director, explained that the city is evaluating the cost of implementing the solution citywide, but he can’t recall any recent example where social postings were part of a public information request. (Editor's note: The parent company of Government Technology is an investor in ArchiveSocial through e.Republic Ventures).
In the past, city departments in Austin would have account managers periodically export social media posting data and save it manually, including taking screenshots when applicable.
“It was clearly an inefficient process, and left quite a bit of room for errors,” Matthews admitted. “One of the attractive things about ArchiveSocial was the ability to capture all posts – even those that were edited or deleted – which is the requirement under public information law. Once it’s posted, it’s public.”
Seattle and Austin deployed their archival systems in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Tipp City, Ohio, and Snohomish County, Wash., are other examples of local governments using archival tools to document social media activity. Norfolk, Va., was also sued earlier this year for not archiving its city council members’ text messages.
The state and local government activity surrounding archiving social media data could have been generated in part by Uncle Sam. The White House ordered its agencies to revamp how they store digital communications – including social media interactions and metadata – by the end of 2019.
North Carolina implemented a social media records retention platform in late 2012. The portal contains more than 240,000 social media records from a variety of North Carolina agencies, including Gov. Pat McCrory’s office.
But not all state governments have taken the same approach as North Carolina. Texas, for example, requires agencies to retain social media messages and posts in accordance with its state records retention schedule. But the schedule doesn’t contain any mention of social media.
Allison Benz, director of Professional Services for the Texas State Board of Pharmacy (TSBP), confirmed that she wasn’t able to find any mention of social media in Texas’ records retention schedule for state agencies.
That really isn’t a problem for the TSBP, however. Benz said she hasn’t received any requests for the agency’s social media interactions on its Facebook page. She added that there has been discussion about a service to make it easier to retrieve social media data if those requests do start to come in, but they haven’t found anything that “works for them.”
For now, everything someone would want to look at regarding the TSBP’s social media presence is out in the open.
“They’d be able to find it,” Benz said, regarding past TSBP Facebook posts and commentary. “We started in 2009, and we have not removed anything to the best of my knowledge. We’ve been pretty strong on that.”
Editor's note: This story has been upated to reflect a public records request made to the Seattle Police Department.
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.