Opinions and Legal Insights

Government Agencies Should Stop Using Facebook And Twitter

By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor.

Twitter LogoFacebook LogoThe below is a reprint of an article I authored four years ago concerning the hazard government agencies face in their reliance on censorship wielding organizations such as Facebook and Twitter to disseminate official information to the public. While it offers a quick, cheap, and easy way to offer news to the public, the price demanded in terms of arbitrary third-party rules, ownership of information, public records keeping liability, and reliance on a platform that could remove individual or all postings without prior notice is a risk the public should not be expected to bear.

There are extant messaging protocols that are not dependent upon third-party proprietary services. These include methods such as RSS Feeds, list based e-Mail servers to push information in addition, and standard web pages. Each more than adequately can fulfill the needs of the informed public. But as long as social media companies act as arbitrary and capricious gatekeepers to official information that information is at risk.

It really is also a matter of controlling the integrity of the information. Governments and agencies are opening themselves up to failure and censorship by taking the easy way out and not deploying these technologies in-house. If either of these supposedly “too big to fail” social media platforms suddenly collapsed (either financially or technologically) it would cause an immediate breakdown of a messaging system spanning governments globally. It can be one of the worst forms of single-point failure imaginable. Yet if each agency or government maintained their own system, if one individual server broke down the damage would be rather benign.

The most immediate problem before us presently is the proclivity to censor by social media outfits which might be at odds with legislation or rulemaking relating to public records and news announcements by government.  It is not a duty of the social media companies to edit or formulate this information.

Here is the article:

(October 15, 2016) The increasing trend of Facebook and Twitter to censor speech based often on political ideology gives government agencies cause to reconsider using these providers for disseminating official information and publications. Moreover, privacy issues inherent with these social media companies could do harm to vulnerable individuals who simply request information from their government.

In articles featured on this website, we described content based censorship on Twitter & Facebook (Suspension of Conservative James O’Keefe, filtering negative comments about President Obama, outright banning Milo Yiannopoulos, and allegations of associates of Facebook suppressing conservative views{via Gizmodo}and numerous others.)

The increasing regularity of bias and removal of content presents a concerning environment where political views of these companies bring into question their reliability and objectivity for which government and government agencies provide information.

Perhaps it is time to shift away and take back control of the messaging.

While the move toward open communication and approachability of government serves a legitimate and commendable purpose, it is now coming with a potential price: the degradation of neutral messaging into one where at times arbitrary decisions dictate what is permitted for transmissions and dissemination.

The use of corporate owned social media serves another purpose attractive to government–cost savings.

When government agencies and officials use social media services, there is markedly less need to construct and maintain websites or servers for information distribution. Where several agencies often use systems that are incompatible with each other, social media addresses this problem by providing a common interface.

Social media is showing itself to be less neutral. Therein remains the risk that perhaps government agencies as a whole or individual officials will run afoul of a social medium’s content expectations and these entities will effectively suffer filtering or worse blackouts. Information exchange then abruptly halts.

Another disadvantage the use of social media, simply to use receive government information, is privacy.

When a user receives information by social media, it has come to be that the very act of reading messages, regardless if the user has a Facebook page or Twitter account, provides information that may be sold or used in such a way that it might not be in the best interests of the reader.

The simple act of reading tweets or visiting social media pages affiliated with government agencies is that such a process generates information to infer patterns of the user. An example might be where a citizen uses social media to access government information about domestic violence and then a profile of this user links to advertisements or sponsored content regarding violence against women. It is possible in that situation that an aggressive husband might discover his wife is reaching out for help and consequently she is attacked in retaliation. Or, that a person receiving Tweets from departments of fishing and wildlife might be a revenue source for the social medium from advertisers of hunting gear. The simple click of a link, through a social media interface, is often enough to establish patterns and databases on individuals who are simply requesting information.

To mitigate these risks, agencies need only look toward the past for answers for internet messaging. Three readily available systems provide safer alternatives to social media:

Owned Websites

As simple as it sounds, websites still offer an excellent gateway for governmental communications. It is not at all necessary to rely on Facebook for such a presence. Yet, this is often unfortunately the most expensive and time consuming method to maintain, especially with regard to security. Yet, mitigating measures such as templating, scalability and common administration can reduce costs.

Web Feeds

Adjunct to web sites, feeds provide a form of syndication for news, announcements or other information such as articles via simple standard process where synopses of articles are pulled by a user having an aggregator. The advantage of such feeds is that an end user controls the information they are to receive, through various settings on their browser. Moreover, unlike below, an advantage is that a user need not provide an email address to receive this information. Two primers for the RSS protocol may be found HERE.

List servers

List servers provide a medium of information distribution where a user/citizen can subscribe to a government hosted mail server and receive in their email mailbox announcements, news and other information the user requests. For more information, click HERE.

Each of these technologies is presently available and can be used at any time, mitigating the temptation to use social media. List servers in fact predate the popularity of the World Wide Web.

It is certainly something to consider, especially if we arrive at a point where lackluster government information technologists wither in their duty to serve the public in-house; relegating the citizenry to a future where only a few social media companies control the information.

By Darren Smith

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.