By The Independent Assessor, Kathleen Florian
While the rise of social media has delivered significant advantages as a real-time communication tool in an increasingly globalised and networked world, it has also had significant negative impacts including reduced trust in key institutions and elected representatives, the obscuring of what is truth and/or fact and the personal and professional cost of targeted bullying behaviour.
As an elected representative you will see the best and the worst of what social media has to offer - and navigating your way through this difficult area can be fraught.
Facebook, Twitter and the like might not be as formal as other means of communication, but these interactions are still subject to Councillor Code of Conduct and other legislation including record keeping requirements. The standards expected of a local government councillor apply whenever a councillor uses any account on which they are or can be identified as a councillor.
The start of a new term is the ideal time to think about these issues and put systems and processes in place to proactively manage your social media presence.
In the last term, the Office of the Independent Assessor (OIA) observed the serious mental health impacts of online attacks on councillors, and their families, and we also received a significant number of complaints about councillors’ online activity in making, sharing or liking posts that are abusive or bullying. Carefully managing your online presence can help you to avoid these types of complaints and may also offer some protection from unacceptable behaviour.
Good management of your official councillor social media pages is about striking the right balance between allowing ratepayers to constructively contribute to or comment on local government issues and matters of public interest while also having clear ground rules to call out and deal with unacceptable behaviour.
This balancing act is reinforced by the recent introduction of the Queensland Human Rights Act 2019 which protects the right to freedom of expression. All Queenslanders have a right to have their say, and they have the right to find and share information and ideas – although this may be limited to respect the rights and reputations of other people. (See footnote section 21 of the Human Rights Act 2019)
Last year, the OIA and the LGAQ produced an impressum which councillors are encouraged to use on their official social media pages. It sets the scene for all who choose to engage on your page - it welcomes engagement - be that positive, neutral or negative – but draws the line at unacceptable behaviors by defining them and outlining up front the circumstances that will see comments hidden or deleted and users warned and or ultimately blocked.
When users are blocked from your page it is recommended that you screenshot the post/posts that led to that action. If complaints to the OIA follow, your records will allow us to deal with such matters swiftly and with a clear evidence basis.
Another handy resource in this space is the OIA - LGAQ social media guide which steps you through some important legal obligations, including record keeping of posts and conversations. In it, we also recommend that councillors maintain a clear distinction between personal and council-related social media use, avoid identifying themselves as a councillor on private accounts and boost the privacy settings on these.
In your own social media engagement remember that higher standards are expected of community leaders, even when under pressure. The Code of Conduct for Councillors in Queensland requires that you treat members of the public with a level of respect that you may not always receive.
If social media users publish misinformation about you particularly if it is relevant to your role as a councillor the OIA supports your right to correct any inaccuracy, preferably during business hours, in a respectful and balanced way. It is strongly recommended however, that you do not respond or react to posts which are baiting or abusive (other than in accordance with the impressum) or get involved in -tit-for-tat social media exchanges, including after hours.
When posting content ask the questions - how could this be perceived by others, is it disrespectful or discriminatory – even if it was meant as a joke? Councillors also need to be aware that comments about public issues may compromise their capacity to perform duties in an independent and unbiased manner.
Anticipating these pitfalls and putting strategies in place now will not only help you to have effective and meaningful engagement with the people you were elected to serve, but will reduce the likelihood that you will find yourself at the center of a social media storm that detracts and distracts from your ability to function both professionally and personally.