The internet 2.0 has brought unprecedented ways government to interact with its constituents. Many governments have blindly followed their peers and society into the ever-evolving world of social media. The smallest of governmental organization with nontechnical staffs can easily set up a Facebook or Twitter account, and start interacting with the digital world. Once on social media, these agencies will open a utopian exchange of information that will allow public administrators to have meaningful relationships with the very citizens they serve.
Real problems can occur when the community engagement tool starts to be used in ways that are counterproductive or even a weapon against the organization or other members of the community. The news is full of stories of people leaving rude or even malicious comments of what can feel like near anonymous websites. A digital environment full of internet trolls, Hacktivists, and digital protests, can make controversial town council agenda items seem enjoyable in comparison.
What can seem even worse is that the government organization may not even be seeking to be involved in some of the issues that can be brought to their social media presence. A good example of this occurred in the City of Greenville, North Carolina during Hurricane Irene when a homeowner left a dog inside a chain-link fence kennel as the family evacuated the approaching storm. A concerned neighbor posted a picture on an animal rescue Facebook page after the town animal control officials informed the neighbor that they could not legally take any action to remove the dog. The picture went viral, and soon animal lovers around the world started to besiege the city with demands to have the dog removed from the property.
City resources during the peak of the hurricane became dedicated to dealing with the calls for action to rescue this dog whose owners had not violated any laws as best the city could determine at the time of the incident. Poorly worded posts to the city’s Facebook page caused concerned animal lovers from around the world to leave angry and threatening posts in response to every post made by the city during the event. Emergency phone lines were tied up by people calling to request the dog be rescued and the owners charged with animal abuse. After the fifth welfare visit by animal control officers, the dog was removed from the property and placed in an undisclosed shelter location due to the threats made from concerned individuals.
Before this event, the City of Greenville had no social media policies that addressed most of the issues they faced as a result of the anger from animal activist who demanded immediate action to save the pictured dog. Prior to hurricane Irene, the city emergency officials had no policy for monitoring social media during emergencies. They also lacked a policy for handling users who went beyond voicing their discontent to being harassing and preventing the city from sharing important messages with its citizens.
While it may be easy for a business or private citizen to simply block abusive users or turn off the comment sections on their web pages, government agencies must balance any control actions with the individual free speech and due process rights. The best way to prepare is to work with legal counsel to develop policies that address when citizen generated content becomes counter to the purpose of the vision and goals of the governments social media sites. This can be especially important to have in place during a crisis when stress cause passions to run high for the things we value the most.