Social Media, Public Records, and FOIA
We often talk about social media in the context of large consumer brands and marketing agencies. Still, perhaps one of the most interesting use cases of social media is in – believe it or not – the government. Government agencies have a responsibility to connect with their citizens, and this connection is most effective when communication can occur freely, which is precisely what social media offers.
These days it’s nearly impossible to find a federal, state, or local agency without some social media presence. In place of unidirectional printed newsletters and press conferences, agencies can engage citizens through Facebook and YouTube. The most popular social networks in the public sector include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. Our 2021 study shows that 92% of public sector agencies use social media for citizen engagement, and 74% take to social media for critical response communications. But this open and accessible communication doesn’t come without challenges, like social media public records and maintaining compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws.
Posts = Social Media Public Records?
Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and records laws in each state, we, as residents, are entitled to a vast amount of government information and records. These records generally include anything related to the business of a public agency, including the agency’s electronic communication. So, does this mean a post is a public record? How about comments on a public agency’s Facebook post? Or a YouTube video? Although each state law defines the issue slightly differently, the answer to the previous questions is a resounding yes.
Social Media and FOIA Laws Across the U.S.
FOIA and records laws outline social media as a government record that agencies must retain for the public in every state. Therefore, agencies must treat the activity of government-related social media accounts as a public record. In today’s digital age, social media has come to play a significant role in successful government communication, offering a quick and cost-effective way to update and inform citizens. However due to the unpredictable nature of these 24/7 platforms, social media records management has also come to play a significant role as a top concern for government communicators.
Here are a few examples of how states define their public records and FOIA retention requirements:
Excerpts from Oregon records management guidance and legal text: “Like other forms of communication, social media posts are public records. That means you are required to retain them, which is additionally covered by the First Amendment, the U.S. Constitution, and the Oregon Constitution. Agencies that use social media must understand that they will need to retain content and decide whether to moderate comments that appear on their sites.”
Excerpts from North Carolina records management guidance and legal text: “Communication through local government-related social media is considered a public record under G.S. 132 and will be managed as such.”
Excerpts from Texas records management guidance and legal text: “The general forms in which the media containing public information exist include a book, paper, letter, document, e-mail, internet posting, text message, instant message, other electronic communication, printout, photograph, film, tape, microfiche, microfilm, photostat, sound recording, map, and drawing and a voice, data, or video representation held in computer memory.”
“Social media sites may contain communications sent to or received by state employees, and such communications are therefore public records subject to State Records Retention requirements. These retention requirements apply regardless of the form of the record (digital text, photos, audio, or video, for example).”
Excerpts from Florida records management guidance and legal text: “‘Public records’ means all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, films, sound recordings, data processing software, or other material, regardless of the physical form, characteristics, or means of transmission, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by any agency.”
Excerpts from Pennsylvania records management guidance and legal text: “Record: Information, regardless of physical form or characteristics… includes a document, paper, letter, map, book, tape, photograph, film or sound recording, information stored or maintained electronically, and a data-processed or image-processed document.”
Social Media Records Management
Now that we’ve established that social media use by a government agency constitutes a public record, we must consider a far more difficult question. How can public agencies reasonably capture and archive this information so it can be made available as public records?
The reality is that records management, specifically social media records management, is a complex topic and one that many public agencies have cited as a critical concern. According to our 2021 State of Social Media Report, the concern with compliance on social media grew 16.4% YoY, with agencies and districts citing compliance with records laws as their second most significant challenge to adoption. In the past, agencies approached the issue in different ways. For example, the state of North Carolina had moderate success using existing webpage archiving technology. On the other hand, many agencies copied and pasted their social media content into a Word document stored on a shared drive.
However, this social media record-keeping method misses a large amount of hidden and deleted content and the crucial metadata that authenticates and verifies social media records. In truth, there’s also no feasible way a human or webpage archiving software can capture social media 24/7.
At CivicPlus, we realized there is a better way to capture and preserve records accurately. With technology that simplifies and automates social media records management for government agencies of all shapes and sizes, from county school districts to federal government agencies striving to comply with social media public records laws.
Our social media archiving software captures your social media content and activity around the clock and in near-real-time in its most native form and stores the data in a forensically sound archive. Additionally, we provide a user-friendly yet powerful user interface to view and instantly locate records when needed.
Start capturing your social media records
We’d love to work with you and your public agencies in need of help with social media records management. You can start archiving today with a free 30-day trial to sample your archive or feel free to contact us for more information.