The city of Minneapolis wants to rein in the online behavior of elected officials, proposing the mayor and council members begin using city-approved social media accounts that prohibit them from blocking constituents.
Minneapolis communications staff plan to introduce the new social media policy publicly later this month. A draft overview, obtained by the Star Tribune, shows the communications office would assert more control over social media in City Hall, including setting best practices for how elected officials use sites like Twitter and Facebook and maintaining access to their accounts. These official accounts would stay with the city, rather than an individual.
The policy would also regulate social media for thousands of city staff, interns or consultants — even personal accounts. Those who fall under a broad definition of city “employee” could no longer use personal social media pages for city business, communications “or to circumvent city processes, such as releasing data,” according to the draft.
The mayor and council members, as elected officials, might still be able to avoid the new rules because the draft policy does not cover “personal” social media accounts — even ones still used for politics. Council Member Alondra Cano asserted that her Twitter account was personal after she blocked several reporters last year after a story about her absences from public meetings.
The city’s proposal comes at a time when politicians depend on social media to communicate with the public and, increasingly, to conduct government business. These platforms have raised fresh ethical and legal questions — and presented new liabilities for those in charge of public relations for the government.
Last week, the city manager for Edina apologized after tweeting that “young North Loopers” will eventually flee to the suburbs to raise families, rather than sending their kids to the Minneapolis Public Schools.
Minneapolis’ existing 8-year-old policy offers little guidance for navigating the modern chaotic state of social media.
“There’s been a leap forward since 2011,” said Council Member Abdi Warsame, who plans to author a final version of the policy, which will go up for a vote. The policy will serve the public by clarifying when elected officials are speaking online in their official capacities vs. personal, Warsame said. “There’s a gray area that can cause problems.”
Questions over whether politicians can legally block members of the public emerged as a national issue last year. A federal judge determined the distinction between private and personal social media handles didn’t matter, ruling that President Trump’s staff violated the First Amendment when they blocked people from his “personal” Twitter account.
Warsame said he expects elected officials will not use personal social media accounts to post about city business and then block users who criticize them. “Then you’re stifling information,” he said.
Cano, who chairs the council’s committee on public safety, blocked several people on Twitter in the past year, including Star Tribune reporters and independent journalist Tony Webster. Cano invoked her right to a private online life.
The Minnesota Society for Professional Journalists challenged Cano’s claim, citing more than a dozen posts where she used the account to promote the city’s political agenda, call for the abolition of ICE or praise other politicians. The society asked the state to rule on the legality of politicians blocking journalists, but the Minnesota data-practices office declined to make a determination.
Joe Spear, president of the local Society of Professional Journalists chapter, said the draft policy doesn’t appear to address what Cano did. “It’s fair for the public to hear their individual representatives and what they’re saying online,” Spear said. “If these elected officials want to be private about their thoughts on whatever, then don’t do a Twitter account.”
In an e-mail exchange with the Star Tribune, Cano said she’s working with the city on the new policy, but she believes “personal or partisan social media accounts wouldn’t fall under the purview.”
For those in charge of the city’s messaging, the new policy is long overdue.
Greta Bergstrom, director of the Minneapolis communications office, said creating new rules for social media has been top of mind since she started in the position three years ago.
The new policy will for the first time apply rules to the city’s 14 elected officials, along with board and commission members, Bergstrom said. It will broaden the definition of city employees to “anyone who does work on behalf of the city,” she said, which accounts for about 4,200 people. Staff will also archive social media posts — including deleted or corrected ones — for the public record.
Several council members agreed the updated policy is needed. Council President Lisa Bender said that in the past elected officials used the same accounts for campaigns and official business, and the new policy will allow for more clear communication to constituents.
Council Member Andrew Johnson also welcomed a new policy but questioned how it will be applied. If official accounts transfer when a new council member is elected, he said, “would quotes or statements by one council member possibly be falsely attributed to the next council member?”
There are also questions over enforcement. Communications staff won’t be able to monitor every employee’s account, said Jordan Gilgenbach, a city spokesman. The office will focus on new training to make sure everyone understands the rules, he said.
“Up to this point, for elected officials, there haven’t been any rules,” Gilgenbach said. “There’s going to be a little learning curve here or there. It’s going to be a change. But we’re really hopeful this will bring more clarity for both elected officials and the public.”
If elected officials break the rules, it’s unclear how they could be held accountable.
Bergstrom said there are situations where it might be appropriate for elected officials to block people on social media or delete posts from the public, such as pornography, spam or threatening messages. The new policy isn’t finished, she said, but elected officials will retain more freedom on “personal” accounts.