Are Government and Public Officials, Official?


Bella Kelly, Contributor

Recently, in a case in Arizona, a constituent sued her Congress representative after he blocked her from his personal social media page. The congressman claimed that it is his private account and therefore, he can block whomever he pleases. Meanwhile, the constituent had argued that because the congressman used his account for public business and communication, the account was of governmental contributory, and blocking her was a violation of her freedom of speech. The congressman was not aware that when using his personal account as a government tool, he no longer had the personal aspect. Blocking her was considered withholding access to a public server and she sued for restriction to comment in this communal area.

Now, where do we draw the lines? Was the congressman really withholding public information? What other questions do these cases raise?

Many social media platforms have been used to spread word through personal accounts, and even by the President of the United States. There are no clear guidelines on social media utilization. There are lots of risks when government and other public officials use personal accounts for public business. The accounts can be used inappropriately or decrease the credibility of the participant and even the agencies. Reputation is a huge part of social media, and it’s not just a factor that plays a role in the daily lives of teenagers.

Now, many people say social media is a great way to spread information. True. Yet, with global access to your voice with just a touch of the fingertips, it’s hardly simple. When government and local officials begin to use social media for public purposes it’s difficult to be fully aware of the risks. Reputation and credibility are always a factor but knowing what is inappropriate can sometimes be impossible. The Arizona case provides a prime example of the use of private social media by public officials which are giving government lawyers headaches. Referring to guidelines, the congressmen was not aware of how he could be denying his constituent her rights while he was exercising his own rights.

The fatal flaw of public agencies utilizing social media is not having set guidelines. In Maryland, social media coordinator, Kate Nash, used the Frederick County Public Schools Twitter account to tweet back a student who asked if the snowstorm would close school “tomorraw.” She then replied, “But then how would you learn how to spell tomorrow?” With over 2,000 likes and retweets, Nash was then fired for inappropriate use of the account. The school officials said the tweet was not encouraging to students, which was the goal in mind when creating the school system’s Twitter. Note that one tweet got Nash fired because she wasn’t educated on any restrictions and guidelines.

In other situations, inappropriate use is far more obvious. As illustrated in President Trump’s participation in social media, most notably Twitter, Trump’s 140-character outbursts often consist of provoking or threatening material. Modern day tweets and traditional speeches are far from being the same. Presidents of the past typically crafted their speeches over week-long periods, preparing proper word choice. Tweets can be thrown out in seconds and invite emotion and immediate reactions. Even as Trump works to help our country, 58% of people in a GSS survey say they wish Trump did not use Twitter. This leads into the point that social media can harm the credibility of the participant. You can see evidence of this in the Katie Nash situation and President Trump’s participation. Throwing out spontaneous tweets can make people question their trust, especially of people in government and civic positions. Billionaire Warren Buffet says trust is a matter of reputation built over a long period of time. He said “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

Social media has its challenges and officials need to be educated on rules and guidelines. Simple access can make it easy to forget the risks. Additionally, everyone should just be conscious of what they do. Government organizations should consider the legal and ethical implications whenever embracing technology. Social media is so significant in life today and must be utilized properly.