Backing Up Twitter and Facebook Posts Challenges Governments

Four tools for archiving social media posts for possible public records requests.

by / January 20, 2010

Amid the stampede in state and local government to establish accounts on Twitter and Facebook, there is a concern about transparency, a few government officials recently told Government Technology. That may seem counterintuitive, given that anyone can view Twitter or Facebook. But government transparency is more complicated.

Citizens may expect agencies to produce and maintain archives of communications that leave a digital trail. For example, employees who receive voicemails via e-mail ought to make sure all of the voicemails they receive are fit for public ears. E-mails are considered public records under the Freedom of Information Act, and that includes voicemails attached to them. State and local CIOs are privately asking whether social media postings will need to be archived, too.

Given that many state and local government IT officials are unsure of how to archive social-media postings, they might want to check out what's happening at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). April Edmonds, a Web technology analyst for the FWC, is often a guest speaker on social media at technology conferences and encounters concerns regarding archiving frequently. She has been experimenting with a free plug-in for Microsoft Outlook called TwInbox to archive Twitter postings, and has persuaded six employees to use it. For now, deployment of the tool is considered just a pet project of Edmonds, and use of it by government tweeters is voluntary.

"Our social media team is still in the process of defining our social media governance, policies and guidelines. In the future, we may recommend an agencywide tool for authorized employees to use," Edmonds said.

TwInbox installs a menu option in a worker's Outlook account, enabling him or her to send a tweet from Outlook. TwInbox then records the tweet and stores it in an Outlook folder. It also can detect if the Outlook user sends a tweet directly from Twitter and records a copy of that posting as well. The software saves employees from visiting a separate Web site to perform an archiving function. "It just makes it easy because they're already using Outlook," Edmonds said.

When Government Technology spoke with Peter Larson, manager of IT operations for Douglas County, Colo., last month, he cautioned against using third-party tools like TwInbox. If archiving social media is required by law, a government should build something it knows it can rely on, insisted Larson.

"If you were going to be on the hook for producing that archive, you would have to implement some sort of system you could have confidence in," Larson said.

Edmonds agreed with Larson, but said third-party plug-ins could be useful options in the interim. "Third-party tools are third-party tools," Edmonds commented. "I always tell people, 'Make sure you check with your technology people about whether you're allowed to load them.'"

Edmonds has investigated other tools that could be used for archiving, including those listed below. She warned that they have their limitations, but they could be a starting point for social-media-savvy governments.

  • TweetTake: This option allows agencies to archive lists of followers, people you are following and tweets for free. Edmonds has received a lot of positive feedback about it from colleagues in the IT field. It requires no software download and can transport the archive as a ZIP file into a spreadsheet program like Excel.
  • ArchiveFacebook: This is a free plug-in for the Firefox browser. It creates a ZIP file and archives Facebook profiles and the information associated with it (like friends and pictures). One caution: It won't archive fan pages, and using this plug-in requires having administrator rights, said Edmonds.
  • SocialSafe: This application for archiving Facebook pages costs $2.99. Edmonds said it will archive the Facebook profile and things associated with it, but not fan pages. The user needs to have administrator rights on his or her computer as well.


Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.