Wednesday, June 10, 2015

When Public Officials Tweet

Somehow the really smart people that we elect to represent us in our local, state, and federal government forget some basic concepts about open records once they decide to create a Twitter account.  There is this powerful belief among them that because they created a Twitter account that that account is now a personal one.  Sorry, but it's not that easy.

I'm a private individual and as a private person I can create a private Twitter account.  This private account would allow me the liberties of blocking idiots, gnomes, taxpayers, creeps, people with questionable political affiliations, and so on.  Public officials CAN create a private Twitter account, but it easily turns into a public account once they start making some very basic mistakes.  Here's a few:

1.  Listing your public job title in your Twitter profile heading.  If you are going to say "I'm the Mayor," well that makes it look like that if I want to contact that mayor then I've found the appropriate account.

2.  Posting Tweets related to the public work you were hired or elected to engage in.  If you are going to engage in an activity on the taxpayers time and the taxpayers dime then is that activity work related?  I don't vote for or pay taxes to public officials to "goof off" on their "personal" Twitter account.  Would you be pleased with the performance of your Mayor, Governor, or City Manager if you knew they were playing Angry Birds or posting to their "personal" social media page all day?

3.  Publishing your Twitter profile contact info to any government or non-government related website that relates to the business of your official position.  Once you decide to publish your Twitter contact info anywhere, again, it makes it look like that is an official way to reach you.

Keep in mind that a public official's personal Twitter account should not, NEVER, contain anything about their public position because then they would be using their position for personal gain.  As you can imagine, if I say on my Twitter profile that I'm an "Assistant Attorney General for the State of California," then I may potentially get more Twitter followers and other related activity on my account than if those words don't appear on my profile.


WHAT CAN PUBLIC OFFICIAL'S DO TO PROTECT THEMSELVES ON TWITTER?

This is an easy question to answer.  Public official's shouldn't try to fool themselves into having safely created a private account, however, Twitter doesn't help the situation.  Twitter's biggest mistake is failing to make users distinguish between creating a personal vs. private account.  Therefor, public officials all go into it thinking that "Aw, I've got this neat private account that gives me the option of blocking idiots, gnomes, taxpayers, creeps, and people who wouldn't otherwise vote for me!  Blocked!"

So what's the easy answer?  As a public official you need to get used to facing scrutiny and criticism.  It comes with the job and you chose to accept it.

Would anyone find it acceptable for a public official to block a constituent from trying to email them?  Deerfield Mayor Jean Robb did and she had to have a staffer tell her this was illegal, but don't ask me how asking a staffer to do something illegal isn't an ethics violation.  

To put things into perspective, the First Amendment of the US Constitution gives you the right to redress your government for grievances.  There is nothing mentioned about how this can or should be done.  You can telephone, email, FaceBook, stone carve, carrier pigeon (if the public office you are contacting has a pigeon service), or Tweet your public official your grievance and as a public servant they are to accept it.  The US Supreme Court has ruled that no government entity has to respond to the grievance, see Minn. Bd. Commun. for Colleges v. Knight, 465 U.S. 271 (1984).

But really the issue is even bigger than our US Constitution.  The issue revolves around democracy.  Democracies are to be inclusive of all people regardless if they are idiots, gnomes, taxpayers, creeps, or people with questionable political affiliations.  Democracies are to be transparent and accountable to the people they serve.  How can a social media platform like Twitter be supportive of democratic principles when they make it so easy to exclude you?

Remember, wars have been fought in the name of spreading democracy.