Case Study: North Carolina Archives Social Media to Comply with Public Records Law

State agencies face low barriers to entry when it comes to social media because joining is free and simple.  Consequently, many state leaders are quick to create a social media presence without realizing they are also sometimes required by public records law to archive and make accessible all social media records.  North Carolina has been an early adopter of social media technologies, and it has been proactive in creating guidelines for state workers and a streamlined web harvesting infrastructure to keep its state agencies in compliance with the law.  

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State public records laws typically include requirements for archiving information, including electronic data. While archiving email and websites has become an increasingly common practice across state governments, the process for archiving social media data hosted on servers maintained by third-party private companies is relatively new ground.

“Social media took off so quickly in part because the price of entry was so low. Budgeting for electronic records management tools hasn’t kept pace,” said Charles Robb, senior policy analyst at the National Association of State Chief Information Officers.

But the ease of entry has created a problem in that many agencies have been able to join social networks but don’t have the knowledge or resources to manage the content they post to those networks. “Archivists and records managers in states have, for the most part, focused on increasing awareness among state agencies that their content very likely includes record material, which needs to be managed in accordance with statutes and regulations, both from the perspective of records management/archival requirements and (the Freedom of Information Act),” says Robb.
 
This is the first step, he said. “The next step would be developing means of segregating, maintaining, and making accessible records for appropriate periods of time,” he said.
North Carolina is well into the second step.
 
Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube often keep content stored on their sites, but if state governments relied exclusively on these private companies to store data, they could run afoul of state open records laws if the companies decided to delete the content stored on their private servers.
 
“The most sophisticated archival programs would be looking into tools for the management of this (social media) content apart from the original platform, but only a handful of state governments have viable electronic archives into which such stuff might be transferred,” Robb said.
 
North Carolina is an example of such a sophisticated program. Its Web harvester is able to move content from the original, social media site to state-managed servers.
 
North Carolina, which is among the states taking the lead in adopting social media, also has addressed new media’s complications; that includes establishing how state officials should ensure that social media data is appropriately recorded. An agency’s official Facebook page, for example, can include posts and comments that, in the case of North Carolina, are considered public record. For that reason, North Carolina and other states have taken responsibility for archiving social media content. Doing so addresses the state’s responsibility to the public to ensure that public records are identifiable and retrievable.1
 
Public Records Law
North Carolina classifies a record as public based on its content, not the medium. As G.S. § 132-1(a) states2:
“‘Public record’ or ‘public records’ shall mean all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, sound recordings, magnetic or other tapes, electronic data-processing records, artifacts, or other documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions.”
 
For this reason, social media in North Carolina falls under the category of a public record. G.S. 132-8.1 requires electronic records to be maintained according to the standards put in place by the Department of Cultural Resources, the agency responsible for managing public records. That’s important, since more agencies are using social media to share information with the public.
 
Social Media and North Carolina
In 2009, Gov. Bev Perdue began encouraging North Carolina’s state agencies to use social media because she believed in emphasizing transparency, accountability and interactivity with the people of North Carolina.3 Perdue began moving state government into new media by circulating the first social media policies regarding how to use social media appropriately and an online tutorial, which was available on her official Facebook page and Twitter account. The governor’s office, the Office of Information Technology and the Department of Cultural Resources collaborated on the initiative developing procedures to make North Carolina social media savvy. Specifically, the policy documents circulated by the governor’s office focused on the following areas:
  • Appropriate implementation, authorization and acceptable use of social media;
  • Security measures to protect individuals, sensitive information, and state systems; and
  • Proper records management and preservation.
North Carolina’s policies addressing these issues are outlined below:
 
Social Media Policy and Best Practices
According to North Carolina’s Best Practices for State Agency Social Media Usage in North Carolina, if an agency decides to use social media, it should consider the following:4
  • The responsibilities involved with collecting and retaining, including preserving social media;
  • The appropriate records retention schedule;
  • The location in which the content will be archived—whether in the Department of Cultural Resources or in the agency itself; and
  • The process for archiving the material if the agency, not the Department of Cultural Resources, will handle this work.
North Carolina also instructs all agencies to follow these guidelines:
  • The comments and posts on an agency’s account should be public, not private.
  • Social media account administrators should encourage the public to communicate with them through their agency email address. Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all allow for private messaging, which functions much like email. If an account administrator receives a message through a social media platform, he or she should ask the individual to contact the agency through the official email account. Messages that are received on social media should, however, still be treated as public records. Account administrators should reply to messages they do receive using their official email account to enable better transparency. They do this because the automatic archiving software is not necessarily able to access and archive social media messages, so responding through the official email account is the safer way to ensure that the correspondence is captured.
  • Some social media platforms, like Facebook, integrate email, private messaging, instant message/chat services into one service. For example, if you send someone an email through Facebook using username@facebook.com, that message will show up as an instant message if the administrator is online. North Carolina clarifies that even if the communication functions like an instant message, these communications are still public records and should be dealt with in the same manner as detailed above.
  • All privacy settings should be set to public.
Agencies with a social media presence are asked to include the following disclaimer so the public understands the legal connotations of their social media interaction:5
“Representatives of North Carolina state government communicate via this Web site. Consequently any communication via this site (whether by a state employee or the general public) may be subject to monitoring and disclosure to third parties.”
 
These guidelines not only allow for greater transparency and access to government, but they also help the Department of Cultural Resources better deploy tools to collect and store social media data.
 
Web Harvesting
To manage this data, the state of North Carolina uses a Web harvesting tool, a leading solution to handle social media archiving. This is a program that captures and stores copies of Web pages on a regular basis. North Carolina is on the cutting edge in this area, using a Web harvester that allows the state to store pages from official websites, including the public content on social media sites.
 
Since North Carolina requires all posts to be public and all messages to be addressed through a state email account, this policy prevents communications that are part of the public record from  being overlooked by the Web harvester or email archive. To ensure the process works, agencies must do the following:
  • Notify the Department of Cultural Resources about the domain names that need to be archived, for example, www.facebook.com/NCCorrection.
  • Make sure no parts of the social media site are private or hidden by a secure socket layer, which would prevent the harvester from archiving that information.
  • Contact the Department of Cultural Resources before deleting any agency social media content to ensure the harvester has saved that information. The harvester does not instantaneously back up information, so an agency should make sure the information has been archived during a routine harvest before deleting that information.
The Web harvesting tool also allows electronic files to be easily searched by the public. By visiting webarchives.ncdcr.gov, anyone may search for archived online content, including social media sites, operated by state agencies.
 
References:
1 North Carolina Office of the Governor, North Carolina Office of Information Technology
Services, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. “Best Practices
 
2 North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives & History.
 
2009. 
 
4 North Carolina Office of the Governor, North Carolina Office of Information Technology
Services, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. “Best Practices
 
5 Ibid.
 
 

 

Case Study: North Carolina Archives Social Media to Comply with Public Records Law

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