Social media and local councillors – a risky mix
Social media has a powerful capacity to connect communities and create change. It can be a force of positivity and is often used during election periods to quickly spread information and gain traction around key issues for those seeking election. But it can also be a quagmire of negativity and nastiness.
The reality is that communities also now expect instant access to information and are increasingly expecting a greater say in what happens in their local village or town. They also expect local councillors to be available online – as they may have been before election – to talk about local issues. This creates a potentially risk mix for local councillors in the online space.
In this article, we share our thoughts on how local councillors can tap into the benefits of social media whilst avoiding the potential pitfalls such as defamation and biased decision making.
Three simple rules for success
When using social media local councillors need to have at the forefront of their minds their obligations under the Code of Conduct. The Code of Conduct applies to online activity in the same way it does to other written or verbal communications. in short, this means three key things:
1. Be respectful
2. Be fair and open minded
3. Be accurate
Failing to follow any of these simple rules is likely to land a councillor in hot water.
Another good rule of thumb is to behave online as you would in person – that is, be human. This is one of the ten golden rules for social media use advocated by the UK Local Government Association.
Obligations under the Code of Conduct
At the moment, the Model Code of Conduct does not explicitly say anything about the use of social media by local councillors. However, several provisions are relevant including:
- Clause 3.1 – You must not conduct yourself in carrying out your functions in a manner that is likely to bring the council or holders of civic office into disrepute
- Clause 3.2 – You must act lawfully, honestly and exercise a reasonable degree of care and diligence in carrying out your functions under the Act or any other Act.
- Clause 3.3 – You must treat others with respect at all times
- Clause 3.14 – You must consider issues consistently, promptly and fairly.
Many councils have also adopted social media policies or guidelines which apply to elected representatives and support the Model Code of Conduct.
Some good news is that the Model Code is set to be updated to deal with social media use. The proposed changes include specific obligations about the use of social media (see new clauses 8.20 and 8.21 in the consultation draft). These new provisions highlight the need for local councillors to act in an unbiased, respectful and accurate way in the online world.
Potential pitfall #1 – Defamation
One potential pitfall with the use of social media is making a defamatory statement. A statement will be defamatory if it is an untrue and damages another persons reputation. This could be a statement about another councillor, member of the public or a staff member.
In the online world, it is easy for a comment to be misconstrued or read out of context. The reality is that words matter (contrary to the old saying “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me”). Inappropriate or ill thought out comments online can equal a defamation action. A successful defamation claim will result in an award of damages.
Importantly, a post, tweet or comment can spread very quickly. The reach can be far beyond the initial audience and the impact can be far greater than intended. The Courts have recognised the ‘’grapevine effect’’ of social media in recent defamation decisions. For example, in Mickle v Farley  NSWDC 295, the Court took the ‘grapevine effect’ into account when assessing the damages to be awarded to a teacher whose former student made defamatory statements on Facebook and Twitter.
Local councillors can minimise the risk of making defamatory statements by being respectful and accurate online. Follow these simple principles:
- If in doubt, leave it out – if you are questioning yourself whether a comment is appropriate, then chances are you shouldn’t be writing anything at all.
- Sleep on it – if the community is in the throes of a heated online debate, take a pause and time to reflect before you post a reply or comment.
- Don’t get personal – talk about the issue, not the person.
Potential pitfall #2 – Biased decision making
Another potential pitfall with the use of social media is making a biased or close minded statement about a matter in which you have a decision making role. This most typically arises in the context of decisions about development applications – often the controversial ones. This means that extra care needs to be taken when writing about planning decisions online. Failing to keep an open mind about a matter that you will be involved in determining, creates a risk that the council decision is invalid due to bias.
Local councillors can minimise the risk of biased decision making by being fair and open minded, as well as accurate in online conversations. In short, councillors should let residents know they are listening but take care in their responses. Some practical tips include:
- Be accurate and informative – don’t try and summarise the facts or technical information. Where possible, give links for people to access and find the information themselves.
- Stay objective – don’t enter the debate about the merits of a development application that is due to go to Council for decision. Instead make it clear that the matter will be decided by council and that you will be taking all factors into account in making your decision.
- Stay balanced – make it clear to the residents that you have listened to their concerns, but save your opinions for the council debate in the chamber. This also means that you can make sure any matters raised by your constituents are discussed at the time of making the decisions.
Final tips for local councillors
With social media here to stay, local councillors need to find a way to effectively use these platforms whilst minimising the potential risks. If you are a local councillor, there are three things to do after reading this article:
1. Read the Code of Conduct again and take a look at the proposed changes to the Code
2. Read and understand your council’s social media policy or guidelines
3. Follow our three social media rules – be accurate, be respectful and be fair and open minded
We can provide tailored training to your council or councillors on the use of social media in the local government context. Please get in touch with Emma who is an independent Code of Conduct reviewer for a number of Councils across New South Wales: