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Drawing a Line Between Internet Trolls and the First Amendment

The Internet has become a breeding ground for trolls and comments that aren’t fit for public consumption. But what responsibility do government social media managers have in moderating this feedback on official channels?

a digital illustration of an man becoming an internet troll
For government social media managers, the ability to navigate the online world and the trolls that dwell within it has become a necessary skill set. While the wide variety of platforms offer unprecedented access to constituents, they also offer an avenue for all types of feedback — some much less productive than the rest.

What to do about an onslaught of negative feedback was a topic of discussion during the 2021 Government Social Media Conference earlier this week. Experts from agencies large and small discussed the pitfalls and rules that must be considered before going to battle with the worst of parts of the Internet.

For example, does deleting a negative comment run afoul of the First Amendment? The consensus among experts is that the creation of rock-solid policy can make all the difference when answering this question. 

Shawna B. Washington, marketing and communications manager for the city of Columbia, S.C., Police Department, noted in a session that her agency’s profile has a stipulation stating what may be deleted, including comments with curse words and the like. 

Washington said sometimes negative feedback is just that and isn’t being directed at starting a larger, productive conversation.

Kaitlin Keeler, digital editorial manager for Oakland County, Mich., explained in another session focused on policymaking that extra care should be taken in assessing whether or not negative feedback crosses a line. 

She argued that government should generally not remove comments because of an inherent responsibility to protect First Amendment rights. When deleting comments becomes necessary, she said, it should be clear why the comment was removed and which policies it violated.

“We need to be transparent,” Keeler stated. “A disclaimer policy is a great first place to start, and you’re going to want to specifically disclaim what you can and cannot delete.”

She added that if comments are deleted, they must be archived to protect the agency in case the Freedom of Information Act is invoked.

These sentiments were echoed by ArchiveSocial CEO Ray Carey, who has seen agencies struggle with blocking users and deleting comments. He emphasized the importance of an agency ensuring that these instances are archived and well documented.

Carey said that trolls aren’t looking to start a dialogue and in many cases are just spamming official accounts for one reason or another. He points to the case of someone commenting that “all taxation is theft” 15 times a day.

“How do you have free and open dialogue with people that are trying to ruin the free and open dialogue and make a mess of your site?” Carey asked. “How do you balance those two things?”

At the end of the day, however, the overall goal of government social media accounts is to engage with the public, said Matt Turner, social media specialist for the National Park Service, during a keynote address. As he sees it, responding to comments from the public on social media posts is a tool to increase visibility.

“Engagement is critical to really moving that cycle forward,” Turner said. “You really want to generate the interest and followers. You want that feedback — no matter what it is — that overall growth.”

Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.