What makes a good social media policy, and how does a government communicator determine when content is in violation?
Let’s face it, social media platforms can sometimes become magnets for inappropriate or off-topic comments that distract from the important information being shared. The ability to hide or remove comments seems to be an option for government agencies, but the fear of First Amendment lawsuits makes many agencies feel like they can’t always maintain a productive dialog on social media.
The solution is to embrace a clear comment moderation policy. But what makes a good policy, and how does a government communicator determine when content is in violation?
To start with, certain categories of speech, including obscenity and direct threats, are not entitled to full protection under the First Amendment. Commercial speech is also subject to different treatment under the law, and can be excluded from a government page. And, of course, privacy laws can be invoked to justify the removal or personally identifiable information such as phone numbers, home addresses and Social Security numbers.
Those are the easy cases, but what about the dreaded “off topic” comments? While it has yet to be tested in the highest courts, a strong case can be made that the U.S. Supreme Court definition of a “limited public forum” can be applied to social media. Under this definition, public agencies can create designated forums in which they may limit the topic of speech or the class of speaker as long as they don’t discriminate based on viewpoint.
Fair application of the viewpoint-neutral rule can be both challenging and risky, so agencies that wish include an “off-topic” clause in their moderation policies are advised to do so with care. It is also essential to retain records of all hidden or deleted material. Remember, in the event of a lawsuit, it is difficult to justify the reason why a comment was removed if the comment no longer exists for review.
The first step in keeping a page focused and productive is establishing clear guidelines for commenters and moderators to follow. It is not enough to simply state, “we reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.” The categories of prohibited speech that are subject to deletion must be publicly posted to establish the limits of the forum. Here is an example moderation policy from the city of Raleigh, N.C.’s Facebook page:
The next step is training page administrators to distinguish between a prohibited category of speech and a protected viewpoint. For example, comments that are negative or conflict with agency opinion may be tempting targets for deletion, but cannot be taken down just because they are unflattering. This distinction is illustrated in the following:
A city with a published policy similar to the one used by Raleigh shown above posts on its Facebook page a decision to relocate a police substation to an underserved neighborhood. The following comments appear on the post:
Comment A: This is a terrible idea and a waste of taxpayer money. Whoever made this decision should be fired immediately.
Comment B: Moving? Three Brothers moving offers fast service at affordable rates. Call 919-888-8787 for a quote or visit us on the web at 3brosmove.com
Comment C: Fantastic! Our neighborhood needs more police and I can’t wait for you to relocate here.
Comment D: F*** the police. You are all a bunch of f****** a*******!
In the above example, Comment A and Comment C address the same topic, but express different viewpoints. Even though it may be unflattering to the city and may express an opinion that is not shared by the department, the moderator may not remove Comment A without also removing Comment C. In fact, neither should be removed since they both relate to the topic of the original post and abide by the comment policy.
Comment B is on topic, but is also a clear solicitation of commerce which is prohibited by the policy. This comment may be removed. Comment D, in its unedited form, is also in violation of the policy due to the obscenities, and may be removed.
No policy or moderator is foolproof, and case law specifically dealing with social media pages as limited public forums is scarce, so the most important step you can take to protect your agency from a lawsuit is to archive records of every post and comment. It is impossible to make the case that a comment was in violation of your policy if no record of that comment exists. Preserving both the comment and context can save your agency from a protracted and expensive legal battle.
Finally, don’t let comment deletion become the norm. The point of social media is that it is meant to encourage interaction, complete with diverse opinions and points of view. The most successful agencies on social media are the ones that face critics head on instead of hiding behind an aggressive removal policy.
Often times, negative public opinion is born out of misinformation or misunderstanding. Before hitting delete, embrace the opportunity to ask questions, provide information, correct misunderstandings and show a different side of the story. Even the most vocal critics can sometimes become the biggest civic boosters when their concerns are heard and addressed.
Need help getting started? Download a free Social Media Policy Template for Public Agencies.
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