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Social Media Disrupts Public Record Retention


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Social Media Disrupts Public Record Retention

Zachary Brandwein

It may be odd to still consider social media a disruptive technology. After all, Twitter was the most widely accessed source of information on Election Day 2016.[1] Yet, social media continues to disrupt our lives, the way companies do business, and the obligations of governments and their officials in new and unforeseen ways.

Maine agencies and local governments have little choice but to grapple with these issues. Many municipalities, municipal departments, and state agencies use social media. For example, to date the Maine Office of Tourism has over 31,000 Twitter followers and has posted nearly 6,000 tweets. The Bangor Police Department’s Facebook page has received national attention, and tens of thousands of followers, for its humorous posts.

It is particularly important for government entities in Maine to consider the disruptive effect social media has on their record retention obligations. Maine’s Archives and Records Management Law directs state agencies and local governments to retain public records regardless of their format, medium, or characteristics. Tweets, Facebook posts, and Instagram pictures from government accounts may all be public records. This raises a number of issues that have the potential to disrupt the way state agencies and local governments communicate with the public, retain records, and maintain compliance with the law.

For instance:

  • What happens if a government Twitter account replies to a question directed to it? Should this exchange be treated as official correspondence?
  • What if a social media post is deleted because it contained erroneous information, or even just a typo? Has the person who deleted it broken the law?
  • How should social media records be retained? Most sites and apps do not allow users to download activity logs. Are screenshots an acceptable record retention method? Should government users contract with third party software to capture content?
  • What if a Freedom of Access request is submitted through a Facebook post? Must a government respond?
  • What if a municipal official uses their personal social media account to disseminate public information or respond to a request from the public? Has that become a public record?

Having written social media and record retention policies in place can help prevent these issues from becoming problems. Annual record retention and social media training policies are also important preventative steps. Finally, municipalities and agencies may want to limit the number of authorized social media account users. These preventive measures can go a long way towards limiting disruptive and potentially costly problems.

If you have questions regarding government use of social media please contact Zack Brandwein at (207) 228-7371 or zbrandwein@bernsteinshur.com.

[1] Mike Isaac, Sydney Ember, The New York Times, “For Election Day Influence, Twitter Ruled Social Media” (November 8, 2016).