Published February 09. 2014 4:00AM
Social media has been praised as a democratizing force that opened opportunities for civic engagement. It built new virtual avenues of communication and conversation among people who never attended a real town meeting or called an elected official with concerns or comments. Facebook and Twitter are now primary sources of information for many. It's where they seek out events planned at their children's school and it's where they go to discern the reasons why police cars were in their neighborhood.
This makes it only natural that some municipal officials have dived headlong into the world of posts and Tweets and why some in towns such as Stonington are calling for the establishment of official Facebook pages.
We agree there is a lot to like about this manner of public communication, but we also have numerous reasons to recommend caution. Municipal officials should create Facebook pages or open Twitter accounts only after careful study and with the support of comprehensive policies governing account use.
The up-side to governmental use of social media is readily apparent. Waterford and Stonington officials, for example, praise social media's effectiveness in keeping residents informed of emergency shelter locations and openings, road closures and power outages when large storms knocked out both electricity and land line telephones.
The Groton Public Library's Facebook page has grown to have more than 900 fans and proved a perfect method to promote library programs and services. Library site administrators study Facebook diagnostics to determine optimal times to post announcements to take advantage of social media activity peaks.
Ledyard has a useful Facebook page overseen by a councilor, Chairwoman Linda Davis.
However, this level of comprehension is far from universal. Many in positions of authority admit they remain almost completely ignorant of the technology. Partial knowledge can be as dangerous as ignorance.
Stonington First Selectman Ed Haberek is in the line of fire for posting official town news and updates on his personal page, a page that also is riddled with announcements of his gym workouts and links to pages with racy material.
Mr. Haberek is now moving toward creating a town Facebook page - a good idea - separating it from his personal page, but seeks a budgetary expenditure. The town should be able to create an official Facebook account without such an allocation.
Another touchy situation developed in one local school district when a teacher set up a Facebook group to communicate with members of an athletic team she coached. She failed to block the students' access to her personal photographs, including several showing alcohol-infused celebrations. One of the greatest assets of social media - its ability to allow many users to contribute opinions and information on topics - also is one of its greatest potential pitfalls for public officials. Two-way - or in most cases many-way - conversations and the lightning speed at which so many can share and disseminate information, means defaming, harassing and just plain inaccurate information spreads quicker and to more people than ever before. A social media policy might allow the removal of such comments, but this also requires officials to perform a delicate balancing act. Where is the precise boundary line for individual free speech?
Among the most troubling potential pitfalls of social media use by public officials, in our opinion, is that this great democratizing force actually threatens the state law ensuring the public's business remains open and accessible. Officials' Facebook comments and virtual conversations with constituents or fellow public officials, even if on personal Facebook pages or Twitter feeds, can be considered public documents that should be archived and open to public inspection. In contradition of this ideal, access to social network sites can be selectively restricted.
Public officials already too often use telephones and email to conduct public business and line up votes out of the public's full view. Social media may be just one more method allowing selective public communication.
There needs to be an old-fashioned conversation about how municipalities should move forward in this new-fashioned digital world.