Originally published: March 3, 2010
Last updated: November 29, 2010 - 11:35am
Balancing social media and federal law is tricky which is one reason why many technologists hope that Congress adopts tech-neutral laws that allow room for experimentation.
The State Department has been among the most aggressive experimenters, directly linking social media engagement with its diplomatic efforts. Virtually every major speech Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers is buttressed by a small army of online diplomats who want to make sure that as many people as possible hear her speech and State's spin on it. When President Obama delivered his speech in Cairo, the State Department organized online townhall meetings in dozens of countries. It has advised other governments on best practices, and, during the first quakings of the Iranian revolution, asked Twitter to delay an upgrade in order to allow Iranians to Tweet. The Facebook page maintained by the Department of State includes on its fan pages links to two political pages: Barack Obama's page, maintained by the Democratic National Committee, and Joe Biden's page, set up by his now-defunct political committee. You can access these pages through, say, the Department's page for the Kabul embassy. It is the 21st century equivalent of putting up Obama for America yardsigns on the lawn of a U.S. embassy. Now -- this is a tiny and inconsequential violation of the rules, but it does seem to break the Hatch Act, which prohibits government from promoting political entities. A link to Obama's White House would be acceptable. The State Department is still figuring out its best practices when it comes to social media, but there are some bright lines, and this is one of them. National security resources, in particular, cannot be used in any way for political purposes, even inadvertently, as is the case here. Clarifying what's permissible and what isn't is important across the government, but State plays a special role, and one assumes that it ought to be held to a higher standard.
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