Penarth Town Council is developing a new “Social Media Guidance” document which lays down a series of guidelines – both for councillors and for council officers – which is to be borne in mind when they are posting comments on social media internet sites like ‘Twitter’ and ‘Facebook’.
In addition to its existing internet website, Penarth Council has its own Twitter and Facebook accounts and a number of councillors also post comments on their own separate personal accounts on both those sites. The new guidelines – currently in draft form – will apply to all such postings.
Amongst other things, the document warns councillors: –
- “Don’t do anything stupid”
- “Assume anything you do or say can be seen by everyone”
- “You shouldn’t state political preferences or say anything that compromises your impartiality”
- “Do not criticise members,” [ i.e. councillors] “work colleagues or the town council””
- “Do not reveal confidential information about Penarth Town Council”
- “Beware of spreading unconfirmed rumours”
- “Be polite”
The policy also specifically states that the council’s – and the councillors’ – use of social media must not:-
- “Contain party political material
- “Persuade the public to a particular point of view “
- “Promote the personal image / views of a particular councillor or party“”
Penarth Town Council’s policy and finance committee has been hearing the views of councillors on the new draft document.
Cllr Rhiannon Birch (Labour Cornerswell) said she didn’t know why Penarth Town Council was writing its own Social Media Policy when there were already such policies available for local government employees . Cllr Birch said the draft Penarth Town Council policy was “not specific enough” . The document talked about whether or not a social media posting “gave offence” – but it was necessary to be “specific about racism, homophobia, sexism etc. – and the use of humour” .
Cllr Birch also said she would like to see the document “boiled down” to a succinct half-page which was short and to the point.
Cllr Mark Wilson (Labour Stanwell) pointed out what when communications were made on social media they “used data”. It would be necessary, he said , to make reference – in the new council guidelines – to the Data Protection Act. There was a need to be very careful when issuing information about people. He thought it would be useful to include “case studies” .
Cllr Wilson added “We are not that far away from elections“. [They are due in May 2017] . It was an opportunity to “remind people who are standing for office about their responsibilities as elected members“. The guidelines would, he said, also be useful for staff as to “what they can and cannot do on social media”. He said the current draft was a “work in progress”.
Cllr Neil Thomas (Labour Cornerswell) noted the stated “responsibility of the website to be impartial” . He referred to a phrase in the draft guidelines which said “You shouldn’t state your political preferences or say anything that compromises your impartiality“.
Cllr Thomas said he recognised that this edict applied to the council officers but said “It isn’t made clear that it doesn’t apply to members” [ i.e. councillors] “given that we are elected and that we are political animals”. Cllr Thomas said members were elected and needed to make comments when posting on social media in a personal capacity.
Cllr Thomas said council officers were expected to be impartial – and be seen to be impartial – whereas members could not be impartial and should not be expected to be.
Cllr Gwyn Roberts (Labour St Augustines) – who also has his own Twitter account with 76 followers – suggested that members should write any comments that they wished to make in the margins of the document and hand it back to the Deputy Town Clerk Keri Hutchings as the “owner” of the document so that they could be incorporated in a modified version.
Cllr Wilson suggested that members could also annotate the document on computer
Cllr Philip Rapier (Labour St Augustines) said he agreed with what had been said. The guidelines were a matter of applying common sense. He said “We can’t – every time something goes wrong – resort to the Malicious Communications Act otherwise it would close down the internet” and noted that Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” was a play all about “hate crime” and contained “three suicides and at least one murder”. He said the whole thing should not be taken too seriously – but nevertheless warned councillors that under the law they had “joint and several responsiblity” for what was published.
The council’s draft Social Media Guidelines will be debated again at a subsequent meeting.
Meanwhile today Labour’s Leader in Wales, First Minister Carwyn Jones, has told all Labour Party members – including local councillors – to “stop trolling” on the internet .
Jones said “The booing, the hissing, the name-calling, the trolling, the threats… it has to stop.”