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Social Networking and Open Record Issues

Written by Cara Donlon-Cotton

    Maintaining an agency Facebook page, like it or not, is a necessary part of community relations. The majority of our citizenry are active Facebook users – communicating via Facebook and Twitter is the new normal in this country. It’s time to accept it, and most law enforcement agencies have. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, more than 65 percent of agencies have made the leap into social networking.

    In previous columns, the dangers of social networking have been outlined – the risks of having an officer’s inappropriate personal Facebook page linked to the agency one, the potential for supervisor liability, the issues about updating and interacting with users, etc. One area that is now of concern for law enforcement agencies is the Open Records / Open Meetings implications of maintaining a Facebook page. While every state has their own Sunshine Laws, here are some tips that should help you satisfy the requirements to remain open and accessible.

    First, make sure your page is set up as an “agency page.” This will give you better administrative rights than a regular personal-type profile just created for under your agency’s name. If you have not set up your page as such, no worries. Call Facebook – yes, actually call them – and they will assist you in migrating your information to an official “page.”

    Set the profanity monitoring level as high as you can – this will eliminate any comments appearing that contain bad words. You can also add your own words that will be counted a “spam” and will not appear on your page. Some examples might include inappropriate slang terms used in your community but you wouldn’t find in a standard lexicon.

    Second, the next step is to have your IT people set you up with a dedicated e-mail address that will receive ALL comments that appear on your page. This does not need to be a public e-mail address that is displayed anywhere, it is merely the one that is a receptor of Facebook information. Set up your notifications in Facebook so all comments are directed to that e-mail address. With this address, all e-mails received will be able to be stored to satisfy Open Records requirements.

    Third, some comments on your page may somehow slip through the e-mail notification cracks. It happens. So be extra cautious and assign someone to monitor them on a routine basis, i.e., daily, weekly, bi-weekly – depending on your Facebook traffic, to archive the page. How? The old fashioned way … open the page, copy it, and paste all the posts and comments into a Word document and create a file on your computer. Voilá! Information stored, Open Records saved!

    Why do you need to do this? Because the more posts and comments you get on your page, they will disappear from Facebook. Sure, a user can select “see older posts” but that’s not going to help you when someone asks for the contents of the page from three years ago. Check with your records retention schedule for your municipality to find out how long you must keep your archived page files.

    Fourth, no matter how high your approval rating is within your community, you are going to get some negative comments on your page. It happens. Eventually someone is going to write in that your departments “sucks.” And hey – everyone is entitled to their misguided opinions. If you delete these comments, you may be accused of thwarting someone’s right to free speech or violating your state’s Sunshine Laws.

    So what to do? HIDE IT. If you hover your mouse over the top right side of the comment until an “x” appears, you’ll get a drop down menu. This menu will give you the options to “hide” or “delete.” If you hide, the record still exists, it’s just not viewable until the user takes the effort to look at all hidden comments.

    Fifth, what if you get a comment or posting that NEEDS to get deleted? Here’s a real life analogy for you. Can anyone attend a city council meeting and speak? Yes. Can they nut up and spew obscenities? No. If the speaker is unruly or disorderly, what do you do? You escort the person out of the meeting. So, extend it to the virtual world. If you can reasonably articulate the poster is unruly / disorderly, you probably won’t encounter too much of an argument about deleting the comment.

    Sixth, this brings us to the repeat violator. So you have a citizen who has been disorderly at every council meeting he / she has ever attended. What happens? Is he / she banned from the meeting? Same principle in the online meeting place that is Facebook. If the user is consistently littering your page with disruptive speech, then you can ban that user.

    You can access your administrative banning powers in a number of ways. Search “ban user” in Facebook’s help page and you will get step-by-step directions on how to do it – be it from a comment, from your page, or from a posting. Hopefully these basic tips will help you with Sunshine issues … before any problems ensue.

 

Cara Donlon-Cotton is a former course developer and instructor with the Georgia Public Safety Training Center. She currently teaches a variety of media relations and social networking classes to local law enforcement agencies. She can be reached at cdonloncotton@yahoo.com or through the Public Safety Training & Education Network at www.psten.com.


Published in Law and Order, Sep 2012

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