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Government agencies navigate the promises and pitfalls of social media

As law enforcement, transportation agencies and other departments rush to interact with the public through Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, guidelines for using social media have been slow to follow.

November 28, 2010|By Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times

When the Orange County Sheriff's Department launched its blog three years ago, the first entry hinted at the department's motivation for venturing into social media.

"The Media's Rush to Judgment," penned by then-Sheriff Michael S. Carona, who was in the midst of a corruption scandal, addressed public perceptions surrounding a police shooting and an inmate's death at a county jail.

With his blog, Carona had made an end-run around the print and electronic media that he felt had sabotaged his career, overlooked the good things his department had done and overreacted to events such as the beating death of an accused sex offender at Theo Lacy jail.

But the ex-sheriff's blog also pointed toward the pitfalls and problems in social media that have left cities and counties across California scrambling.

Fearing liability from posted comments, Redondo Beach put the city's Facebook page on hold in August. Yolo County in Northern California adopted a social media policy in April, and San Francisco abandoned its effort to archive posts on its Facebook page.

"Everybody sees the benefit and there's an early rush and then you begin seeing the problems that come up," said Redondo Beach City Atty. Michael Webb. "Law by its very nature progresses much slower than technology … we need to let the law catch up with the technology."

In a National Assn. of Counties survey of member counties, 41% said they used Twitter and 36% said they had a Facebook page. Yet almost 80% said they had no social media policies. But that may be changing.

In Orange County, where Carona's reign ended with an indictment and the jail beating resulted in a damning grand jury report, officials have adopted a social media policy that discourages hyperlinking, warns against attacking specific groups and asks each department to name a social media coordinator.

The policy, one of the few adopted by a county in California, also directs each department to weigh the use of social media and says it should be a "risk-based decision" that takes into account goals, legal perils, technical capabilities and potential benefits.

What the policy doesn't do is regulate content or distinguish between opinion and fact.

Just a few years ago, municipalities were rushing to get into social media — the talk at conferences was often about which city had started tweeting or joined Facebook. But now, some are beginning to take a more measured look.

In February, California unveiled a Social Media Standard directing that only authorized state employees can use departments' official accounts and that some features, such as instant messaging, should be disabled.

When Orange County began looking into a policy last year, the chief executive's technology office asked other California counties whether they had policies. The overwhelming response was: " 'We don't, but we'd like to see yours when you're finished,' " said Orange County spokesman Howard Sutter.

Just as e-mails can be subject to California's Public Records Act, Facebook status updates, tweets and blog posts can be too, as Orange County's policy repeatedly reminds users.

Webb, Redondo Beach's city attorney, pointed to how San Francisco struggled with this issue — the county began archiving all Facebook posts and comments before finding it prohibitively expensive.

At a League of California Cities conference earlier this year, two presentations illustrated the conflict: one was on the benefits of Facebook, and the other was a blunt reminder that the site falls under the Public Records Act.

Webb had expected that during the conference the league might issue a request to Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown for direction on using social media. That didn't happen, he said, and now cities and counties may have to figure things out on their own.

Like other public information officers around the state, Ted Nguyen of the Orange County Transportation Authority uses Twitter to send out practical, ready-to-use information — in his case, details on bus and Metrolink delays, road detours and freeway construction projects.

Nguyen also spends some of his time giving out information about social media. Several times a day, he is contacted by government agencies from across the country with questions like: Do you need permission to tweet someone's photo?

"I think there's obviously a fear factor, they don't necessarily want to be the first one out the gate," he said. "There is this effort to help each other."

raja.abdulrahim@latimes.com

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