Social Media Offer Political Tools, Privacy Concerns

E-newsletter Issue #93 | May 25, 2012

While social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can give policymakers and candidates for public office important tools to communicate with constituents and voters, they also can present numerous pitfalls to avoid. 

That was one of the messages for participants in the Social Media Boot Camp session last week at The Council of State Governments’ National Leadership Conference in La Quinta, Calif.

“CSG believes in sharing capitol ideas and these are some great tools you can use to stay connected,” CSG research analyst Nathan Dickerson told attendees in explaining the reason for organizing the session.

But Dickerson said social media can make some believe they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.

“There’s an expectation for everybody to be on social media, but there’s a challenge because there are a lot of technical features, you’re not necessarily familiar with the websites and how they work,” he said. “There are also some privacy concerns and public relations concerns that can easily creep up.”

With more than 900 million monthly users and 526 million daily users, Facebook offers a potentially huge audience to those with a political message to deliver. That audience is an engaged one as well, Dickerson said. Facebook users are 250 percent more likely to have attended a political rally or meeting and 57 percent more likely to have tried to convince someone to vote for a specific candidate. 

But Facebook also features something called frictionless sharing apps, Dickerson told participants. These apps will automatically post items read on other websites directly to a Facebook profile. One of the newest of these apps, Socialcam, posts occasionally racy videos viewed to a profile. Facebook users will want to be careful when using these apps to avoid the perception that viewing content constitutes an endorsement of it. 

Another Facebook feature, the new Timeline profile, offers an opportunity for candidates to tell their story in words and pictures, including the key events that shaped their political perspective. But a downside of the feature is that it can resurrect older news and photos a user may not want to highlight, Dickerson said.

Carefully managing privacy settings on Facebook and keeping public and private separate are important to making best use of this social media tool, said Dickerson. Instead of creating a personal profile on the social networking site that requires each new “friend” to be approved, Facebook users can create a page and allow anyone to subscribe to its content. 

While Facebook focuses on the personal, Twitter’s emphasis is more on sharing information, Dickerson said. The site, on which users post 140-character messages or “tweets,” has evolved from a sort of mass texting platform to a form of micro blogging to what is now a real-time information network that has put Twitter at the center of reporting on key world events in recent months. 

Dickerson highlighted a Twitter privacy feature called “Protect My Tweets,” which allows only those approved to receive tweets. 

YouTube allows users to share videos online with an initial limit of 15 minutes per video. Users can increase that limit by being in good standing, frequently uploading videos and by giving the company a cell phone number to verify their account. YouTube has separate settings for sharing and privacy that can be modified, Dickerson said.

Public officials who choose to use social media will need to pay close attention to terms of service agreements, which sometimes include indemnity clauses that can run counter to state constitutions, said Dickerson. They also will want to make sure they know their state public records laws and what kinds of information shared on state computers may be subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has an online guide with open records law information for every state.

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