Proceed with Caution: Social Media Tools Can Pose Ethical Problems for Lawmakers

Article excerpt

The casual and lightning-fast nature of social media makes it an easy and inexpensive tool for public officials.

Despite the many advantages these new technologies bring, there also are thorny ethical considerations, such as blurring the lines between personal and public information and privacy. How can new communications technologies be used effectively but ethically to engage citizens? Consider these two hypothetical cases, based on real experiences.


When Shirley ran for the legislature, her campaign advisers set up a website, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and a blog. The cost of creating and maintaining her web presence was borne by her campaign. The content was devoted to policy statements, endorsements, media clips, a calendar of personal appearances, and photos and videos with the public.

Her greatest exposure came through Facebook. By the end of the campaign, her Facebook page had thousands of "friends" and hundreds of postings about her campaign.

Shirley shut down the campaign website but decided to keep the popular Facebook account, and began to post legislative messages and constituent polls. The task of maintaining her Facebook page was assigned to a staff member, who worked on it during regular office hours. A "push" was organized to add key lobbyists, government contractors and others as "friends."

Several ethical issues arose after the election.

* Can a government official use Facebook as a way to discuss public issues?

* If so, can an official limit access to such a Facebook page in any way?

* Do all members of the public have a right to see what is on a publicly maintained Facebook page? What about a completely personal one?

* Can an officeholder "unfriend" certain individuals or remove selected posts on a publicly maintained Facebook page?

* If a Facebook page is completely personal, must the official confine all comments to personal rather than public matters?


Lance was an assemblyman representing a high-technology district and was an early adopter of social media. His primary means of communicating with his constituents was his blog. A Twitter account was mostly for fun, and he used it to chat about his family and to share banter with many of his friends and followers.

As chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, Lance found himself in the middle of a fierce lobbying effort from employee unions, social service agencies, and the state school system, among others. In his daily blog posts, he tried to explain the complexity of the issues, discuss the difficult choices facing the state, and encourage input from the public through the comment feature of the blog.

His attempts at civil discourse were shattered when an increasing number of anonymous comments were very critical of his position on the issues, and often misquoted or misrepresented his proposals or voting record. At one point, the negative comments outweighed the positive two to one--and several were nothing more than personal attacks.

The social media experts he consulted suggested a system requiring stricter guidelines--registration requiring a valid name and email address--but he was concerned the extra steps would dissuade the legitimate dialogue he was seeking. A good friend offered to monitor the blog comments and remove all that disagreed with the assemblyman's positions. …