What the new social media rules mean for Queensland councillors
On April 13, 2019 the Office of the Independent Assessor (OIA) released new social media guidelines for Queensland’s Mayors and Councillors. The guidelines are reportedly due to a surge of complaints about the use of social media in local politics and confusion over how the Code of Conduct for Queensland Councillors applies online.
Prepared by the OIA and Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ), Your Social Media and You: A guide for elected council members in Queensland claims to be a best-practice guide to assist councillors to manage their social media – in particular Facebook. While the guide states its not a “formal policy or a new set of rules”, you can expect councillors across Queensland will be closely following this document to avoid becoming the first test case for councillor misconduct online.
The OIA guidelines applies to four types of social media accounts:
A councillor’s official social media accounts that identifies the councillor and are predominantly about the councillor’s work.
Political social media accounts that identify the councillor and the activity is predominately for political or election purposes.
A councillor’s personal or family social media accounts.
Social media accounts that are used by, or associated with, a councillor but are in false names.
The good news is the guidelines do clarify some social media sticking points for Queensland’s councillors, while serving up some common sense. However, there are a couple of surprising recommendations and interpretations buried in the document. It’s also worth nothing that the guidelines are specifically for Queensland’s elected councillors. The Queensland Government’s practice of forcing a higher standard onto local government representatives than its own members continues.
Councillors are warned that social media content or comments that do not adhere to the Code of Conduct for Queensland Councillors can be labelled inappropriate conduct. The same posts could be considered misconduct if a councillor already has a disciplinary history related to social media activity – or if it is a serious breach. Penalties for inappropriate conduct range from a public admission to the requirement to resign from council boards or committees. Misconduct penalties can see a councillor fined, excluded from council meetings or suspended or dismissed from office at the Local Government Minister’s discretion.
One account to chat to them all
It is no surprise that official Facebook accounts and political accounts are expected to follow the guidelines and adhere to the rules set out in the Code of Conduct for Queensland Councillors, but many councillors will welcome the clarification that a Facebook Page used for connecting with and informing residents in their division can also be used for political purposes.
This is a common-sense ruling that ensures councillors don’t need to build, monitor and manage two separate pages while trying to do their job. Residents can struggle to appreciate the difference between our three levels of government and who is responsible for what areas and services – let alone the finer points of what Facebook page they should use to ask a specific question. The decision to allow the dual purpose for pages means residents can ask councillor’s questions about council business and also their political beliefs and intentions. It also means a councillor who has spent four years building a strong social media community can continue to connect with that audience in the lead up to and during an election period.
Councillors should take advantage of this ruling and ensure that they are building up a strong, relevant social media presence that highlights how they represent their ward or division, and how the council is servicing and improving the community. Closer to the next council election, councillors will be able to continue to communicate with this audience and including political activity. There are requirements that apply to ensure election material complies with the Local Government Electoral Act 2011. The guide includes recommendations to add an authorisation to the page and videos, images and other materials that can be downloaded and/or distributed separately.
Separate the personal from the public
Personal accounts have always been a difficult area for politicians. While Facebook Pages have made it easier for our representatives to connect with their communities, limitations on accessing groups have forced a lot of councillors to use Facebook Profiles to monitor and engage with community groups. Some councillors do this by maintaining two profiles, but this practice is not efficient. It has also become more difficult as Facebook cracks down on the creation of fake and duplicate profiles.
OIA recommends that councillors maintain a clear distinction between personal and council related social media use. This is done by not identifying their role as a councillor on personal sites and beefing up privacy settings to only immediate friends and family. Of course, it’s not quite that simple… Family and friends may engage with councillors about council business via their personal channels and other people will search for and try to engage with personal accounts. Councillors may be very careful about what they say, but supporters and family may not have the same discipline when their friend or loved one is under attack.
Councillors need to be very, very careful about the appropriateness of all comments and material shared on social media. Even on private, locked down accounts the Courier Mail test needs to be applied – don’t post it if you wouldn’t want it on the front page of the newspaper.
Be wary of fake or secondary accounts
The inclusion of social media accounts used by, or associated with, councillors is an interesting and welcome addition to the guidelines. Nasty social media accounts sniping at other accounts and spreading misinformation using the protection of pseudonyms have become a problem in election campaigns all around the world. While the social media giants have copped a lot of flak about fake accounts manipulating election results, political parties, candidates and their supporters should also take some blame for their actions. Hopefully, the implementation of real consequences for these activities means the race to the bottom is done – for local government elections at least.
While it is obvious that councillors should not use fake accounts to troll or engage with other politicians or candidates. The inclusion of the term “or associated with” is a strong warning to councillors to ensure their campaign teams, staff and supporters are also acting in a transparent, ethical manner. It will be tempting for councillors and their supporters to engage anonymous, fake or secondary accounts to share content and messaging that is now off limits to councillors. But if a councillor’s campaign manager or assistant is found to be behind an account that is not acting in accordance with the Code of Conduct for Queensland Councillors it is the councillor who could face misconduct allegations.
Of course, the difficulty will be proving that the people behind a certain fake account are associated with a councillor. A bit of sleuthing may uncover the probable author or people who set up Facebook groups, but definitive identification of the author and proof they are associated with a councillor may be difficult to come by.
Keep the politics in the chamber
While State MPs are often spotted tweeting from the floor of parliament and frequently debate political points with their opponents on Twitter, the local government guidelines seek to keep politics in the council chamber.
Councillors are told to ensure their social media comments do not adversely affect the reputation of their fellow councillors, their council – or local government in general. The guidelines effectively gag councillors from criticising or disagreeing with other members of the council, as comments that undermine another councillor’s position are banned.
Councillors also cannot undermine public confidence in council’s processes. This means posts that question the validity of a public survey or community consultation period are blacklisted at a local government level.
Councillors are also warned that personal comments about public issues could compromise their ability to perform their duties in an independent and unbiased manner. A post that supports a political party or interactions with a business need to be carefully considered if there will be a possible conflict of interest down the track.
Finally, Councillors are warned not to express a conclusive view on matters before council – before they have fully considered the proposal and related issues. This guideline could trip up councillors who maintain a hardline stance on issues like development or increasing rates without seeing all the details first.
Setting the record keeping straight
The Public Records Act 2002 aims to ensure the public records of Queensland are made, managed, kept, and, if appropriate, preserved in a usable form for the benefit of present and future generations. The Act applies to various Queensland Government bodies, representatives and local governments and covers “any form of recorded information, created or received by, or created on behalf of a Queensland public authority in the transaction of government business.”
To save you reading a lot of legislation and various guidelines – yes, this also applies to emails, social media posts and comments, text messages, private messenger conversations that relate to a business decision or activity. And no, simply keeping that content on Facebook is not considered to be a complete and reliable, useable record.
In what can be seen as a bit of a cop out, the State Archivist says the “Records Governance Policy is focused on the what not the how”. This means the State Archivist is happy to dictate what you have to keep, but does not have a lot of clear, meaningful, realistic advice on how you actually keep the records.
The good news for councillors is it is the council’s CEO who is responsible for maintaining and managing council’s official records. However, it is councillors’ responsibility to ensure all public records they create as a councillor are provided to council for capture and management in official council systems.
Councillors are required to keep a complete and reliable record of social media posts that relate to council business whether they are shared on a councillor’s official or private social media account. The OIA guidelines include an example of what is a public record and what is not a public record.
As you can see, a photo from attending an ANZAC Day march is considered to be a public record that needs to be kept for future generations. The guide recommends councillors capture a screenshot of the post, including the date and timestamp and supply it to council to capture in their official systems.
Where things get trickier is if there is a debate in the comments of this post about a council decision or business. Under the Public Records Act 2002 the entire conversation has to be recorded and preserved once it is complete. What’s not clear is whether it is the councillor’s or the CEO’s responsibility to capture that conversation. This is likely to be a decision made at a local government level as part of council’s individual social media policies and processes.
Monitoring and capturing entire conversations in an accessible and holistic format is not simple. Depending on the length and complexity of the conversation this may not be as simple as collecting a screenshot. These screenshots then have to be filed into the council’s record keeping system. The requirement to capture and log content can chew up a lot of time and council resources. There are tools that have been created to address this need - but the pricing may be prohibitive for individual councillors or smaller councils.
Despite the effort involved in recording all this content, the State Government has set the standard for its own social media content that “most social media content will have a transitory or short-term value”. This means the content only needs to be retained for anywhere between two days to two years, or when business use ceases. Some social media content that documents a decision making process could have a higher value for record keeping purposes and must be kept for longer. It is unlikely the example provided by the OIA and LGAQ would be considered a high value record. Ultimately the decision of what must be kept and the processes councillors must follow will be set by the Council CEO.
Show some respect
The Code of Conduct applies to social media engagement – in particular the requirement to show respect for all persons and accept and value differences of opinion. For councillors, this means not hitting the delete button on any comment they don’t agree with. It also requires councillors to be calm and measured in their responses.
The recommendation councillors implement some House Rules, or guidelines for commenting on the page is great advice. The House Rules determine what is acceptable conduct on a page. It can also be used to set the parameters of engagement, such as when a councillor is available, how to highlight inappropriate comments, the best ways to contact council, and how to lodge an official complaint.
It is a misconception that politicians need to answer every single comment shared on their page. In fact, there are a lot of times where comments are best left to go through to the keeper. This can include conversations between a follower and their friends, people expressing a contrary view or sharing something off topic.
Councillors should try to acknowledge and respond to genuine questions and provide information where they can. It is totally acceptable to acknowledge a comment and say you need to gather more information about the issue. It’s also acceptable to refer someone to the appropriate council channels that can action a request faster or provide more detailed, accurate information.
Some comments are best acknowledged with a simple like – although moderators do need to be careful as a like implies agreement with all of the contents of a comment.
Tell someone who cares
The guidelines advise councillors to respond to possible complaints about themselves, their council or councillors by advising how the member of the public can make an official complaint. This is an interesting recommendation.
One has to wonder how many councillors will be happy to hand an angry resident the link that could trigger an investigation and ultimately cost them their job. It is fair to assume community members will not take a general whinge about council or a councillor any further. However, if the set message on how to complain is used too frequently or used in a manner that comes off as glib this requirement will simply add fuel to a social media fire.
Will councils see a flood of vexatious or insignificant complaints as a result of this recommendation? Will councillors lose out because as a member of the community has deemed their interaction on social media as disrespectful? Time will tell.
Know what you are doing online
What these guidelines make apparent is that councillors, their campaign teams and local government staff have to understand the rules and each social media platform they are using. The application of the Code of Conduct means the stakes are too high for councillors to dabble in social media or leave it in someone else’s hands.
Councillors are urged to ensure they know how to manage their social media presence. The guidelines state councillors should be across the following:
Moderating comments from members of the public
Managing attacks from opponents and community members
Managing complaints lodged via social media
Understanding what constitutes a public record and how these need to be preserved
Social media requirements for elections
Councillors should also learn how to manage an online community and expectations, what content is effective and the culture of different social media platforms. Really understanding how social media works and the pitfalls you have to avoid makes Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter effective and affordable platforms to help councillors do their jobs, connect with the community, and ultimately be re-elected.
Cinc Social Media director, Kate Wilson has worked with a number of Queensland councillors and councils to create social media policies and strategies. She has also provided group and bespoke training for councillors and staff covering content creation, campaign strategies and community management.