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Borough social media policy necessary, but murky: Editorial

Posted 10/31/18

Social media has been a part of the lives of most Americans for years.

Still, it’s taken a long time for many government agencies — including the borough of Middletown — to have …

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Borough social media policy necessary, but murky: Editorial


Social media has been a part of the lives of most Americans for years.

Still, it’s taken a long time for many government agencies — including the borough of Middletown — to have a policy to address its official use.

The borough council approved such a policy earlier this month, and it’s long overdue.

It addresses both what borough employees can put out on social media and the types of comments allowed — and not allowed — by members of the public. The policy applies mostly to the borough’s Facebook page. The borough has very little presence on Twitter, Snapchat, etc.

Most of what is in the policy is straightforward.

Comments posted by users of the borough’s social media outlets can’t include sexually suggestive language; references to illegal activity; threatening or harassing material; confidential information; defamatory, slanderous or libelous statements; and profane or vulgar language.

That all makes sense.

What most concerns us is this part: Posts can’t contain “political comments of any kind, including for or against any campaign, office holders, or candidates.”

So: What is a political comment?

The borough regularly posts to Facebook agendas for upcoming council meetings.

If someone posts a comment that says the proposal listed under No. 2 on the agenda is the dumbest idea they’ve ever heard, and that proposal is the pet project of a council member who has espoused its virtues for months, is that a political comment? Or is it simply a resident sharing their thoughts on the future of the borough?

The opposite also is true. If someone posts a comment that council member “Sue Smith” is doing a great job, will that be removed? Would it be handled differently in an election year because it assumes support of the candidate at the ballot box?

Granted, the borough’s Facebook page isn’t full of controversial posts. Those in the last month include the borough council and Industrial and Commercial Development Authority agendas, a note about the Kiwanis Halloween parade, information about a Kids Kastle fundraiser, and times for the drug take-back event. But if you have any experience using social media, you know that commenters can hijack the most innocuous of posts with questionable responses.

The person in charge of deleting comments is the borough manager, a position held by Ken Klinepeter.

He previously expressed concern about being put in charge of this, and rightfully so. From a time standpoint alone, he argued, it would be a major undertaking.

Klinepeter had the right idea in wanting to prevent comments on any Facebook posts. However, their IT consultants told them that it was not possible.

This might not seem like that big of a deal. But keep this in mind: All Facebook posts and the comments from the public are subject to the Pennsylvania Right to Know Law. That makes this a serious undertaking. Under the law, the borough must maintain all comments for at least three years, whether they are deleted or not.

The borough’s policy also means certain steps have to be taken to delete a comment. The borough manager must document the post to be deleted by taking a screen shot of it and writing a short synopsis of why the post was removed prior to deleting it. The synopsis must note the date of the post, the identity of the individual making the post, the date of deletion, the identity of the individual approving the deletion, and the identity of the individual who both deleted the post and completed the synopsis.

Also, all content that is related to borough social media sites, including posts, subscribers, and private message communications, are to be considered public records.

If not for the arduous task related to deleting a post, we would suggest that every comment simply be deleted as soon as possible, regardless of its nature. That way, there would be no gray area regarding the nature of comments. They simply would all be taken down.

We encourage Klinepeter to give feedback to council in the next six months on how much time is spent moderating Facebook comments.

Social media can be an easy way to spread information, but the borough must weigh if it is worth one of its highest-paid employees handling such a duty, and whether issues over the “political comments” portion of the policy crop up.

It simply might not be worth it.