The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission will consider a draft advisory opinion tomorrow regarding elected officials' use of social media. And while I fully understand and appreciate their logic, I'm not quite sure their proposed guidance ultimately achieves their stated objective.
The Commission recognizes that if it is overzealous in policing the use of these new modes of communication for misuse, elected officials could grow overly cautious in their use of social media, or stop using these new tools altogether. Seattleites would lose a valuable tool for actively engaging in, or simply monitoring, the work done by City officials. The advice that follows is guided by a desire to permit, to the greatest extent possible, elected officials to use social media without fearing a Commission enforcement action.
Their advice? Don't link to your non-city blog or social media site via an official city communication or else you "cede editorial control." Get that? Post on your city web page, "Follow me on Twitter," and suddenly your private Twitter or Facebook account is subject to all the same regulations as your city communications, preventing you from even deleting comments, let alone saying anything meaningful about anything remotely related to a political campaign, including your own.
Now, I understand the Commission's directive to prevent the use of city resources for campaign purposes, and I'm not opposing that objective in theory. But in practice, I can assure you that under these guidelines, when I'm elected to the Seattle City Council, I won't use city resources for just about any communication. I mean really, why bother taking the chance that in the heat of the moment I might write a tweet in a way that could bring me up on an ethics charge?
The result is that city officials either won't use blogs and social media, or if they do use them, the general public will have a helluva time finding them. Which means less information in the hands of voters about what elected officials truly stand for. And I just don't see how that can be a good thing.
This guidance also demonstrates an odd disconnect between our understanding of how constituent relations works in the physical world versus its newish, social media counterpart. For example, if a councilmember were to post on their official website to come meet them tonight at Drinking Liberally, that presumably would be okay, even if a face-to-face conversation about the anti-tunnel initiative were to break out over a beer or three. But if that same councilmember were to invite you to visit their Facebook page, and that same conversation over that same initiative were to ensue, that would be a violation of city ethics rules.
Where's the sense in that?
So how about this compromise: All the same rules apply, with the exception that city officials may include along with their phone number and other contact information, a list of Twitter, Facebook and other online addresses, without comment, just in case citizens are interested in finding out more about what they think.