When Government's Social Media Goes Awry | WGLT

When Government's Social Media Goes Awry

Jun 26, 2019

Editor's note: This is Part 2 of a WGLT series on government's use of social media. Part 1 was about how government and public safety agencies are using social media.

Social media has become a new frontier for government bodies to relay vital information to the public. But just as quickly and easily as it can inform and entertain, social media can also misinform and enrage.

One of the most popular Facebook pages locally is the Bloomington-Normal Restaurant Scene. It has 22,000 likes. So when it posted a story about two women wanting to open a wine bar and bistro in downtown Bloomington called the Gypsy Room, it caught many people’s attention, including the city council member for that part of Bloomington, Jenn Carrillo. She replied to the post that the name Gypsy Room was racist and called for a boycott unless they changed its name.

The owners of the proposed wine bar quickly replied they meant no harm and would come up with another name. Carrillo withdrew the boycott, but the firestorm was well underway. It spilled over into the city council chambers.

Ruben Granados, another downtown Bloomington business owner, called out Carrillo during a city council meeting, saying she was setting a dangerous precedent.

“In no way shape or form are the small-business owners of Bloomington and in particular Ward 6 going to stand by and allow this behavior from their own representative," he said.

Carrillo said she can be both an advocate for racial justice and a strong advocate for small businesses in downtown.

She later apologized to downtown business owners in a private meeting, but prior to that, she explained why she didn’t reach out to the owners directly.

“I do think then we miss out on a broader community conversation, where I had a lot of people reach out to me and say, ‘I had no idea it was a slur, and I’m really glad that this happened so now I know moving forward,’” Carrillo said.

Nate Carpenter, Director of Convergent Media at Illinois State University, cautions elected officials against using social media as a bully pulpit.
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT

Nate Carpenter runs the Social Media Analytics Command Center, or SMACC, lab at Illinois State University. He said government officials have been known to use social media to advance political causes, but he cautioned elected officials from turning it into a bully pulpit. He said you might win the battle, but you can lose the war.

“There’s power, but there’s also responsibility that comes with that and then also becoming involved in that space she’s going to see the immediate backlash,” Carpenter said.

Carrillo declined to be interviewed for this story, but while explaining how she handled the matter to the media after a recent council meeting, Mayor Tari Renner intervened.

“I’m certainly open to learning and evolving what are the different ways to handle these things as they come up, but I’m going to err on the side of being very public about issues that are of concern,” Carrillo said.

“If I could just add something,” Renner said, wedging himself between Carrillo and a gaggle of reporters. “I would just say, come on! This is the kind of thing where nobody is harmed. Everybody learned a lesson.”

For his part, Renner has had a history of inflicting harm, sometimes on his own career, through words he or other have posted online. The city council in 2015 censured him for calling a conservative blogger who was criticizing him a “total piece of garbage,” a “sick, dirty, slimy, ignorant fool,” and “the craziest human being I’ve ever known.”

Renner at the time took full responsibility for those words but said that’s a part of his past now. He said people try almost daily to goad him into online fights over how the city is run.

“There really have only been two or three times where I ever really engaged, and I’ve regretted it every time,” Renner conceded. “But you definitely do, when absolutely every piece of my schedule is FOIA’d (through the Freedom of Information Act) all the time, every single text message, every single email, every single telephone call, every single aspect of your life, of course it’s going to change what you do.”

Renner said the newly elected council members recently underwent an extensive orientation involving all kinds of city business, but specifics on best practices for social media wasn’t part of it.

The city’s communications manager, Nora Dukowitz, said the city doesn’t try to manage what the mayor and council say or do online.

“All in all, they can do what they want to do,” Dukowitz said. “They are a great resource for us in sharing the content that we create on (city-run) pages which help to spread the word for us, but generally they do their own thing.”

Elected officials generally have more leeway in how they wish to use social media. After all, they serve at the pleasure of the voters.

That become clear when McLean County adopted a social media policy in May.

McLean County Board member Jacob Beard (right) advocated that County Board members be exempt from its new social media policy.
Credit Jeff Smudde / WGLT

County Board member Jacob Beard asked that the 20 members of the board be exempt from the rules, and his colleagues obliged.  

“We clearly do not speak for the county. We speak for ourselves,” Beard said. “In communicating with constituents, we would not want to be limited in that way.”

Elected officeholders such as sheriff and treasurer have to follow the guidelines, but there’s some gray area. The policy outlines disciplinary guidelines for violators, including dismissal, but it makes no mention of disciplinary action for elected officials who violate the code.

Personal vs. Public

Another gray area for elected officials is separating what content should be posted and what’s best left for someone’s personal site.

In the runup to the elections last fall, McLean County Democrats accused County Clerk Kathy Michael of improperly blocking users from the county clerk’s official Facebook page.

Just like the best ways to use social media are still evolving, so too are the laws guiding its use.

Lisa Sorenen, Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center, said legal precedent on social media issues is likely years or decades away.
Credit State and Local Legal Center

Lisa Sorenen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center, a Washington D.C.-based group that offers legal guidance to municipalities in matters which go before the Supreme Court.

She said social media is still so new there’s no real legal precedent yet, and there might not be for decades, but we can glean from two recent appellate court cases.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia ruled in January that a county official in Virginia could not block a critic from an official government Facebook page.

In March, the Trump administration challenged a U.S. District Judge’s ruling last year that President Donald Trump couldn’t block Twitter users from his official page: @RealDonaldTrump.

Sorenen said for now, the courts are saying the First Amendment trumps government officials wishes to censor negative comments.

“Tolerate those unpleasant comments,” Sorenen advised. 

She recommended elected officials separate their personal and government social media sites if they wish to exert control over who sees and respond to their content.

“Remember when you are a government official using social media on your government account, that this is your government account and the First Amendment applies,” she said.

County Clerk Kathy Michael won re-election, and shortly thereafter, the county clerk’s Facebook page was taken down and has not been restored. Michael has since been using her personal page to post county clerk matters. While not unheard of, it is rare for a government official to rely solely on a personal page for official business.

Michael declined to be interviewed for this story.

Delete, Delete, Delete

Often the biggest nightmare for a social media manager is hitting "post" and then wanting to take it back. That happened in Normal recently when someone, writing as the Town of Normal, replied on Facebook to a WGLT story about a lawsuit filed against the town to stop an Uptown development and save a mural. The town’s response said “what a waste of tax dollars fighting a frivolous lawsuit.” The poster went on to respond to other comments about the story.

A Town of Normal staffer went to Facebook to slam a lawsuit against the town over a mural. The town later retracted the comments and apologized.
Credit Facebook/WGLT

The posts were quickly deleted but the damage was done.

“The person (who) did it instantly knew it was a mistake and had taken it down,” Mayor Chris Koos said. “That shows you how many eyes are on the Town of Normal page because a lot of people saw it.”

Koos said the flap appears to have been caused by someone being crossed up by Facebook’s new administrator rules and mistakenly posted as a town administrator when they intended to post to their personal page.  

“It’s just being more rigid about what you are posting and making sure you are posting on the right page,” Koos said.

The town later went to social media to apologize for the posting and said it was handling the matter internally.

Koos said the town needs to do a better job combating what he calls misinformation online, and he considers social media one vehicle the town can use. What complicates that, the town’s social media policy directs a communications manager to oversee it. The town eliminated that position last year.

Koos suggested it’s time the town bring that job back.

“The council has asked to have that position reinstated because the need for corporate communications is important,” he said.

Social media will continue to evolve, but it seems clear it’s never going away. That worries some in the public sphere.

Renner admits he’s not technology savvy. He’d much rather meet with someone face to face.

“When you talk to someone, you can tell tone or if you are offended by something you can say, ‘I’m offended by that.’ Then you can say, ‘I didn’t mean that,’ and then you can clarify and then you walk away with a greater understanding,” Renner said.

Renner said social media has made us better connected, but in the process we’ve lost understanding of each other.

For all its pitfalls, Koos said social media can still be a government asset. He recently conducted an informal poll on his official Facebook page to get feedback about whether those ever-present "neighbor" signs violate the town’s code.

Koos said the town will look to change the code to ensure the signs are legal, but he added it’s not a priority.

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