With great power comes great responsibility.
It’s a saying not only relevant for Marvel fans. Social media has the potential to be immensely powerful in disseminating information and spreading the word about important initiatives. At the same time, it can also be dangerous and even put limitations on your daily life as a member of the government.
That sounds complex, and it’s by design. The constant contradiction of social media is been a consistent topic in Australian politics, especially since no current laws exist to govern social media use in the public and private sphere. Instead, most rely on policies and guidelines from their employers, which has brought up some very significant points.
First, you can use social media to your advantage. However, you also must make sure that you remain compliant with your state regulations. How can you reconcile the two? It starts with a better understanding of the duality of the medium.
The Power of Social Media in Government
If you’re at all familiar with social media, you probably know about its powers. Half the Australian population logs into Facebook on a daily basis, and other platforms like YouTube and Instagram are not far behind. That large audience pool has made social media perhaps the single biggest communication channel for any government entity.
The possibilities are significant. You can reach anything from a wide range of users to a very segmented audience relevant to your messaging strategy and goals. Government agencies across the country use social media to educate and inform, and have done so with increasing success over the last few years.
The Dangers of Social Media in Government
With social media being such a powerful communication tool for individuals as well as businesses, its users will naturally include government employees.
It’s only natural to assume that on your private account, using social media in your private time and on your own devices, you’re free to disconnect your messaging from your employing agency or department. In reality, that’s far from the truth.
The Consequences of Governmental Social Media Regulations
As social media has become increasingly pervasive, local governments have begun to put in place regulations that put limitations on anyone who works for them, with very real consequences for those who don’t comply with the rules.
Even if you have a private Facebook page, working for the government means that more likely than not, several regulations limit you when acting on social media. Whether or not you know them, you must follow them or face the consequences.
That became astoundingly clear just last year, when a local councillor from the Shire of Esperance got into hot water. She was forced to apologise and briefly saw her job threatened because she posted what turned out to be fake news about a rivalling councillor on a page that was not connected to her job. But that didn’t matter – once the comments were live, she was in trouble.
The Australian Public Service Commission – A Case Study in Social Media Policy
As is the case in Esperance, agencies and local governments are increasingly putting policies in place that restrict their employees from getting too personal on their favourite social networks. Take the Australian Public Service Commission as an example, which published social media guidelines last year to significant press coverage.
In its guidelines, the APSC asks its employees to remain impartial and act as a representative of the organisation at all times. Failure to follow through is considered breach of conduct, which can lead to significant consequences from fines to suspensions. Under the policy, APSC employees cannot:
- Criticise the work of the agency
- Criticise the current minister
- Criticise the work of previous agencies in which the employee might have worked
- Leverage seniority for opinion posts that will be taken as agency authority
- Use inappropriate language or tone on any issues
- Refrain from public criticism of anyone, as well as any policy debate
- Share any sensitive information.
The policy also expands the definition of public posts to include personal emails, private messages, and more. Posting anonymously, on a private account, or after hours doesn’t change the responsibilities and limitations for its employees.
Potential Problems with WALGA’s Social Media Policy
Like the APSC, The Western Australian Local Government Association (WALGA) has recently come under scrutiny for a similar issue. Its social media policy, formerly designed to be an introduction into the medium and protection against cyber bullying, recently attracted scrutiny.
A proposed new clause seems specifically designed to restrict what members and councillors can post on social media. The clause reminds all public employees in Western Australia of their duties to represent the state, and that all comments could be taken as official word. Even the slightest controversy could result in stiff penalties as a result of breach of conduct.
The new clause purports added accountability for local government officials, but potentially has
significant free speech implications. Employees are treated as always on the clock, and all digital information shared (from email to private messages) is considered public.
Will Outrage Lead to Future Leniency?
A full read of the APSC social media guidelines linked above is worth your time, if only for the amount of outrage it has caused since its publishing last year. Extensive coverage in the Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, and The Guardian all quoted various ministers, privacy rights experts, and other employee advocates who questioned the sense and potential legality of the guidance.
That, in turn, has begun to raise questions about the potential future of these guidelines for Australian government workers. Though the outrage has not yet caught any legislative legs, the government has begun to review laws that need to include social media-specific language. That might include the potential limitations of social media use among government employees.
For now, though, it’s difficult to trust in that review process. The APSC is only one of countless examples, many of them local, in how agencies seek to restrict their teams ability to use social media. If you don’t pay attention to these policies, you could cause unwanted trouble.
What Can You do to Protect Yourself and Stay Compliant?
In other words, how can you make sure that you use social media responsibly, for the right purposes but without looking to make ways? You can take a number of steps.
It all starts with understanding your social media policies, regulations and guidelines. If they’re not easily accessible, ask around. Focus especially on the portions that regulate personal social media accounts. That way, you can make sure you get an understanding of what you can or cannot do before you forge ahead.
Next, it’s important to understand your responsibilities as they relate to social media. Some restrictive guidelines may shy government employees away from the medium altogether. That doesn’t have to happen. Instead, find the middle between compliance and responsibilities.
Finally, look into social media management and archiving tools that help you stay compliant. Platforms like Brolly help you easily archive all of your content, making sure that even if they inadvertently become public record, you don’t lose them and find yourself in violation of a law you didn’t even know exist.
The power of social media also introduces a number of dangers, especially among government employees. Fortunately, you don’t have to be blind. Instead, take the steps you need to make sure you remain compliant, enabling you to leverage the medium without fear of repercussions.