Most public sector agencies, and many businesses, develop and enforce policies to guide their employees in the appropriate use of social media. The focus of most such policies is to reduce the likelihood that employees will post something that compromises the organisation that they work for. Conversely, the main criticism of social media policies is their potential to muzzle employees from communicating freely with the public.
A study commissioned by the Australian Electoral Commission recognised that “social media afford(ed) new opportunities for engaging citizens in democratic processes” (p8), but warned that sites can “become ‘digital enclaves’ or ‘echo chambers’ for small groups of like-minded citizens who dominate discussion.” (p29)
Social media policies may make provision to block members of the public who post spam or abusive or threatening messages onto the Facebook page/Twitter stream/etc of the organisation in question.
Few social media policies, however, seem to address the issue of whether staff are allowed to block/ban or remove posts in relation to members of the public who post material that is not offensive, but which may embarass the individual/organisation and/or promote or reflect alternative ideologies or belief systems.
Granted, my research has been limited, but the sole exception I have come across thus far in the public sector is the ‘ACT Government Social Media Policy Guidelines‘. That policy includes the following clause:
“Openness and transparency should be the defaults, meaning blocking users on Twitter and locking Facebook groups designed for public interface is not advisable” (Source – refer page 27)
This topic recently reared its head as a result of my interaction with a government agency known as the Australian Human Rights Commission (‘AHRC’).
As readers of this blog would be aware, I maintain an ongoing interest in the operation of the AHRC (example). That being the case I periodically check the relevant social media accounts to maintain an awareness of what is being said and done, and occasionally to comment.
The other day I was surprised to discover this notice upon attempting to view the Twitter stream of the Sex-Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins:
I looked at my most recent tweets to Ms Jenkins to see if I had inadvertently stepped over the line re: civility. This is what I found:
Fairly tame stuff, huh? As I expected. I challenge Ms Jenkins or anyone else I have communicated with to produce anything that they consider to be so offensive as to justify punitive action. I mean aside from generalised hurt feelings arising from transgressions against cherished ideology.
I’m both a tax-payer and a former public servant, and I would no sooner have binned correspondence from the public/hung up on people/etc than walk to work naked. And make no mistake, blocking constituents on social media is the current-day equivalent of such actions. How things have changed.
I wonder if such action is permissible for federal public servants under the existing legislative/regulatory framework? I wonder how commonly it occurs, and whether anyone actually knows?
I also wonder if the staff who engage in this type of systematic disengagement are more or less likely to hold particular ideological views? This PEW Research article, for example, found that the people most likely to block others on social media held consistent leftist/liberal views.
As I discussed in another blog post, this default position of silencing rather than engaging dissenting voices has become a hallmark of gender feminists.
It must be quite intoxicating to believe that your position is so right, and others so diabolically wrong, that dialogue with unbelievers is not just redundant but seemingly an affront to decency.
General guidelines for public sector staff, in relation to engagement with the public including via social media, are set out in ‘APS Values and Code of Conduct in practice‘. It contains a number of provisions relevant to this issue such as:
2.2.3 The Directions about this Value require APS employees to engage effectively with the community, working actively to provide responsive, client-focused service delivery. <snip> Employees must also ensure that decisions and interactions with clients are objective and impartial, and in accordance with government policy.
4.5.7 <snip> employees should avoid partisan comment and ensure that their approach to speaking publicly about policies supports public confidence in the capacity of the APS to be impartial.
5.1.3 A real conflict of interest occurs where there is a conflict between the public duty and personal interests of an employee that improperly influences the employee in the performance of his or her duties.
The Australian Human Rights Commission comes under the oversight of the Australian Attorney-General. That being the case I approached that Department (the ‘AGD’) as follows:
“Today I noted that I had been blocked from accessing the Twitter stream of a senior member of staff of the Australian Human Rights Commission. Prior to this occurring I can confirm that I did not communicate in a manner that was abusive, threatening, etc (nor make an excessive number of posts for example) … actions that would reasonably justify being blocked or banned.
Such an action on the part of a senior public servant appears not just unprofessional, but amounts to censorship being applied to stakeholders simply on the basis of holding a dissenting viewpoint.
I am writing to you now to request details of the guidelines under which staff (or agencies themselves) within the AGD are permitted to ban or block members of the public from social media streams or pages. Specifically, is such an action even permissible in the absence of bad language, threats, etc?
I look forward to receiving your timely advice regarding this matter.”
The AGD subsequently replied:
“Thank you for contacting the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department (the department). The department is not able to directly assist you. Your enquiry would be more appropriately directed to the Australian Human Rights Commission … “
The social media policy for the Human Rights Commission is provided here. The policy does not clearly state whether staff members are empowered to block people for reasons other than those specified therein – which I did not contravene.
I then directed relevant questions to the Australian Public Service Commission (‘APSC’) and the AHRC. In their initial response the AHRC directed me to their social media policy, which I had already indicated I had read. I replied:
“I am seeking an indication from you as to whether the Commission has either a policy or accepted practice whereby members of staff are empowered make
unillateral decisions to place blocks or bans on members of the public
seeking to access and engage with various online portals estatblished
by the AHRC.
As I indicated in my initial email, my focus is on situations where
there has been no clear contravention of the standards of behaviour
set out in your policy. I look forward to receiving your further advice on this matter.”
The subsequent response from the AHRC again directed me to their Social Media Policy. From that I think we can assume that they have either not understood the nature of my concern, or that such concerns are only to be addressed on an ad hoc basis.
In contrast I received useful feedback from Paul Casimir, Director Integrity, Employment Policy Group at the APSC:
“The Australian Public Service Commission has not developed guidance for APS agencies about the circumstances in which it would be appropriate for an APS employee or an APS agency to block access to a Twitter feed or similar social media platform. This is a matter for individual agencies to consider in each case having regard to a number of factors including, but not limited to, the obligation under the Commissioner’s Directions to engage effectively with the community.
Where an APS employee has acted in a manner inconsistent with the APS Values or Code of Conduct that matter may be referred to the head of that agency for consideration as a potential breach of the Code of Conduct.
However, it may also be relevant to you to know that the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Ms Kate Jenkins, is a statutory officer appointed under the terms of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. As such, she is not an APS employee and is not bound by either the APS Code of Conduct or the APS Values in the way that APS employees are. The excerpts of your blog post from the APS Values and Code of Conduct In Practice do not apply to her.”
My own position on this matter? I don’t take Ms Jenkins gesture personally in the least. I do find it ironic, however, that someone whose job it is to protect rights should be so amenable to the removal of rights. Indeed the Commission is on record as asserting internet access to be a fundamental human right. The possibility that Ms Jenkins action was tainted with a degree of misandry is similarly repellent.
I believe that the sort of waspish and self-indulgent behaviour common to online feminist echo chambers is completely inappropriate when transposed to the digital portal of a public sector agency. In the latter situation the priority should not be shunning and shaming, but rather sharing and engaging. Such as approach should be consistently applied to all interested stakeholders – regardless of their ideological preferences and/or the extent to which their views align with those of the relevant agency or individual managing the account.
(Postscript 13 October 2018: ‘Should politicians be allowed to block voters on social media?‘)
(Postscript 10 July 2019: ‘Ocasio-Cortez Sued for Blocking People on Twitter‘)
Postscript 7 August 2019: ‘High court rules public servants can be sacked for political social media posts‘. Interesting
Finally here’s an emerging initiative in the UK – a proposed petition to have their parliament consider this issue of citizens being blocked by public servants on social media. To access the petition related to the text below please click here and here (31 May 2022)