The Federal Buzz is a weekly partnership between The Washington Post and GovLoop, a social networking site for federal workers.
More agencies are making the leap to social media but not without reservations. One of the biggest obstacles to building an agency Facebook page or launching a Twitter account is figuring out how to handle negative comments. Public servants have been considering how to best respond to critical or inappropriate online comments – delete, defend, or simply ignore?
Many public servants underscored the importance of adopting a comment policy. “Having a clear commenting policy will help determine whether a post needs to be deleted,” explained Kevin Lanahan, an interactive media specialist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. “Depending on the comment, we’ll even send an email to the user asking them to re-post without profanity or personal attacks. Most people are okay with that.”
Other employees wondered whether deleting a comment containing profanity or hate speech would be censorship. Some worried that the government was in a particularly precarious situation by having to police itself, while others pointed out that censorship depends on the context.
Social media allows people to connect with government in a more personal way — and it opens the door for criticism to live on in cyber perpetuity. Nonetheless, most employees discussing the issue favored allowing critical comments to remain online.
“There are few absolutes in social media, but to me, one of them is that you absolutely shouldn’t delete comments simply because they criticize your agency,” said Jeffrey Levy, an employee at the Environmental Protection Agency. “Doing so just shreds your credibility, denies you the chance to respond, and tells the world you’re not actually interested in hearing what the world thinks.”
Often the power of social media is the online community itself. Jesse Wilkins, a government contractor, argued that removing comments could do more harm than good. Instead, agencies should consider letting the community police itself:
“Censorship of a social site is like pushing a balloon: the comments will still be posted, they just won’t be as visible to the organization — meaning it will be harder to counter them. If negative comments are made, either the community will address them because they are incorrect, or perhaps the community will agree with them because they aren’t. In either case a positive outcome is quite possible, though in the latter it might be more difficult and less comfortable for the organization.”
Removing negative comments can make an agency look insecure or insensitive. Rather than fearing criticism, some employees argued that agencies should embrace constructive comments.
“Not all criticism is bad,” Denise Petet, a Kansas Department of Transportation employee, pointed out. “Sometimes it’s good to know what people are feeling... The key is that not every criticism needs to be responded to. Sometimes people just want to vent. And the hard part can be determining the venters from those with real issues.”
Indeed, there might be something worse than a few critical comments. According to Wilkins, “What should be of most concern to an organization is either where negative comments aren’t addressed, because there is no community or it doesn’t care, or where there are no comments at all.”
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