This article originally appeared in the “GovGirl on Social” column in Government Technology Magazine.
It’s a fairly common practice for government agencies to “hide” social media comments for violating their social media policy, rather than delete them. There is a sense that hiding comments isn’t as bad as permanently removing them. But hiding is actually far worse and can have unintended implications for government.
Citizens have a right to disagree with what your agency does and even to be downright angry, thanks to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Freedom of speech gives citizens the right to express opinions without fear of persecution or censorship by government. First Amendment protections also extend to certain statements made on social media. Therefore, your social media policy should be crystal clear about any circumstances that would give your agency the right to remove comments, such as the use of profanity, discriminating remarks or threats. It’s common for governments to have a comment moderation policy such as this.
WHY IS HIDING COMMENTS DIFFERENT FROM DELETING THEM?
When government social media administrators use Facebook’s tool to hide a comment, no notification or other indication is sent to the person who posted the comment. The citizen likely has no idea that their comment was hidden. Some social media administrators believe hiding is appealing because it feels less obtrusive for the commenter than entirely deleting their comment. Others believe that if the citizen has no idea, then they can’t voice additional anger or post disgruntled rebuttals. It defuses the situation.
But here’s the problem: The real trouble in hiding comments on Facebook is that the commenter, and his or her Facebook friends, can still view the comment. Not only this, but they can continue the conversation by replying to the comment, without knowing that the comment is no longer public on your page.
WHY IS THAT BAD?
The problem with hiding comments is that it’s a purposeful move by an agency’s representatives to be secretive about displaying something a citizen wrote on their department’s Facebook page. If your agency ever had to argue a position in court, you would likely need to fully disclose your intention in hiding the comment. Even if a comment egregiously violates your comment policy, and you hide it, what if someone in that person’s friend list posts a reply to it? Maybe the friend’s comment doesn’t violate your policy and contributes to useful public discourse. Unknown to them, their reply is hidden from anyone outside their friends viewing it.
If you’re dealing with a company or business in the private sector, hiding comments might not be a big deal. But when you’re a government agency, it’s a whole different story. If a social media comment is worthy of deletion because it violates your official social media comment policy, then delete the comment while following your records retention protocols. Be cautious of looking to hiding as a less severe alternative.