Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

Social Media, Free Speech and Parliamentary Service

Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

Social Media, Free Speech and Parliamentary Service

Article excerpt

The Senate Administration has, in the last few years, adopted a Statement of Values and Ethics, a Code of Conduct for Staff of the Senate Administration and, very recently, a set of Social Media Guidelines for Staff of the Senate Administration. This article looks at certain provisions of these documents and related issues involving parliamentary service.


Modern technology has been getting employees into trouble for years, decades even. Social media can be seen as simply the latest challenge evolving technology has introduced to the workplace. In their early stages of adoption, photocopiers, fax machines and email all provided avenues for inappropriate expressions and behaviour, or were used for non work-related matters. Internal guidelines and processes had to be put in place to address issues that arose.

The Social Media Guidelines for Staff of the Senate Administration recently adopted by the Clerk of the Senate distinguishes among official use, professional networking, work-related use and personal use. Official use may involve providing content to or responses within an institutional social media tool like Twitter or Facebook. Work-related use may involve passive monitoring of issues related to one's professional responsibilities using a social media account. Staff are reminded in the Guidelines that they are to conduct themselves with the professionalism and integrity expected of Senate personnel, as well as those of any professional organization to which they may belong.

Privacy settings on various sites change frequently, as do the features. On Facebook, social readers share with everyone who has access to your page your history of online reading. From that history, perceptions can be formed about your political views. Tagging of photos by friends of yours on their own pages can bring to public light events you might prefer remained private. The other reality of social media platforms is that their features and personal settings change often, and sometimes without warning.

But how does this relate to professional lives? How should parliamentary employers and employees accommodate this new reality? How should parliamentary employers react to different degrees of questionable behaviour online?

There do not appear to be any black and white answers to these questions. Context is a variable that plays an important element in judging behaviour. It is virtually impossible to predict all the possible scenarios that might occur, and equally difficult, therefore, to dictate hard and fast rules.

As an easy, accessible means of self-expression, social media is also blurring the lines between public and private, citizen and employee. Because they are not technically or physically on corporate "territory", employees can convince themselves that their actions online can be divorced from their professional accountabilities. The false sense of anonymity that is sometimes involved in online environments can add to this sense of distance. Finally, the immediacy of interaction, the emotional intensity and the competitiveness of certain situations can also provoke strong, intemperate reactions or statements from participants in online dialogue.

Managing our reputations against perceptions of unprofessional behaviour or perceptions of partisan bias has always been a feature of parliamentary service. With respect to social media, self-interest would suggest not only paying careful attention to who is able to see personal content, but also the wisdom of having that content committed to the digital universe for all time. There are two simple rules of thumb for online behaviour: if you would not say or do something in a public location, or write a letter to an editor about it, do not do it online; there is no such thing as guaranteed privacy or anonymity in the online universe.

Staff should be very mindful that all information they post is ultimately traceable and leaves a permanent digital footprint online. …

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