Councillors and social media

Background information on the use of social media for councillors.

Councillors' guide: handling intimidation

Key points

  • Social media can be very useful in getting feedback on proposals and communicating information about councillors’ activities
  • Social media is always on, so consider setting personal limits and establishing your own routine
  • Councillors are subject to the council’s code of conduct when using social media
1. Why you may find social media useful

Social media has become an every-day communications tool for councillors and the people they represent, and the potential for councillors using social media is huge. Social media allows you to be innovative and responsive as well as providing links to useful sources of information or sign-posting to other organisations.

In addition, it is a useful source of intelligence:

  • People will talk about local issues, their concerns and interests.
  • You can find out about breaking news, the latest research or publication or the latest policy announcements from organisations such as the LGA.
  • People often have little understanding of the councillor role and may have negative perceptions, but social media can give people a taste of your personal life and remind them that you are similar to them.
  • Residents can be made aware of and provide feedback to your work and campaigns, including mobilising support and interest and gathering followers.
  • You can have conversations with people who do not traditionally seek out their local representatives.
  • Social media allows for immediate communication. You can pass on information and receive opinions in minutes. You can forward information from other people equally quickly (bearing in mind that you would then share equal responsibility in law for anything later seen to be untrue or defamatory)
  • The local and sometimes national press will follow councillors on Twitter or Facebook. Social media is a growing source for stories for news outlets as each tweet or comment is effectively a mini-press release. 
2. Online safety, personal security and digital citizenship

Digital Citizenship, which has begun to be taught in schools, is about engaging in appropriate and responsible behaviour when using technology, and encouraging others to do so as well. It encompasses digital literacy, ethics, etiquette, online safety, norms, rights, culture and more. 

In any personal online biography, it is advisable to make clear that the views are those of the councillor in question and may not represent the views of the council. If space allows, you may also want to set out a ‘response’ policy, such as “I welcome questions via email” and an ‘engagement’ policy, such as “abusive content will be removed”.

It is easy to put personal information online, such as your birthday, routines, places you frequent, future visits, holiday destinations, relationships, and opinions, etc, which are then available for anyone in the public domain to access. For personal safety, as well as identity security, you may want to consider whether you share personal information, images of friends and/or family and details of any routines. 

Social media posts now include location-based information, particularly from mobile phones, which tells people exactly where you are or where you have been. Again, with personal security in mind, you may want to turn off these notifications. 

You can ‘search for yourself’ to check what information you can find out about yourself, your family or your business on-line. Checking this regularly means you can check what is in the public domain and edit it if necessary.

With respect to personal security, it is advisable not to include on social media details such as your personal phone numbers, home address, details of family members or vehicle details. 

A picture paints a thousand words, and a photo can relay personal information you may not want shared on social media. As such, it is advisable to only publish photos of family, friends and colleagues with your consent and theirs, to ensure photos don’t reveal your home or places frequented with family members such as schools or care homes, and to disable automatic photo and location tagging so that you have to approve another user identifying you in a photo or being at a specific location. You may also want to make your family and friends aware that you will be following these precautions.

Some people say things via social media that they probably would not say in person, and they can post false information, insults or messages that you would not want to be associated with you. These can multiply and be shared quite rapidly. Councillors, and in particular female councillors, are unfortunately increasingly the subject of online abuse, bullying and harassment on social media. See our section on handling abuse on social media on how to manage this.

Having a social media presence means that people can contact you at any time. This is great in terms of accessibility but means that they may expect you to reply immediately, which can create a sense of pressure. It is useful to set your own rules and limits for how you manage your social media presence. 

You can be sent phishing requests and malicious software on social media the same as you can on email, so maintain the same level of vigilance. 

Be aware that some individuals post socially unacceptable, defamatory, inciting or even intimidatory remarks to generate online activity on the back of advertising or promotion of ideologies, brands or events. Similarly, the term “internet troll” is used to refer to a person or group of people who deliberately start arguments or upset people by posting inflammatory or off-topic messages online with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal discussion, often for their own amusement. 

Be aware of safeguarding because social media sites are often misused by offenders. Safeguarding is everyone’s business – if you have any concerns about other site users, you have a responsibility to report these.

The usual protocols regarding confidential information, copyright, data protection, purdah, exempt reports, etc, apply to social media. Avoid publishing anything where there is doubt or seek permission in advance. Your council may also have a protocol regarding the use of social media in the run up to, during and after both internal and public meetings.

To be an effective councillor you won't stop meeting people and posting leaflets simply because you are posting online. You will know your residents best - consider which channel works best for them to connect with you, online and offline.

To provide support councillors in their use of social media, it is recommended that councils have their own policies, protocols and training, as well as a point of contact within the council to give support and to report to if things go wrong. The LGA will be working with members to develop more detailed advice for councils in a future guide.

3. Responsibilities of councillors on social media

Councillors are personally responsible for the content they publish on any form of social media. Publishing or allowing to be published (in the form of a comment) an untrue statement about a person which is damaging to their reputation may incur a defamation action for which you will be personally liable.  The same applies if you pass on any similar untrue statements you receive.

Social media sites are in the public domain and it is important to ensure you are confident of the nature of the information you publish. Once published, content is almost impossible to control and may be manipulated without your consent, used in different contexts, or further distributed.

You can make use of stringent privacy settings if you do not want your social media to be accessed by the press or public. It is advisable to read the terms of service of any social media site accessed and make sure you understand their confidentiality / privacy settings. 

Some councillors choose to have separate social media profiles for personal and council use. It is important to keep in mind, however, that even the strictest privacy settings is no guarantee for posts or actions to remain private. As a rule of thumb, never post anything online you would not be comfortable saying or sharing in a public meeting.

The code of conduct for members and relevant legislation continues to apply online and in social media. If you are referring online in any way to your role as a councillor, you are deemed to be acting in your “official capacity” and any conduct may fall within the code.

4. Managing and moderating your own group or page

You may wish to set up your own councillor or community page on Facebook. These are valuable platforms to promote local information, news, events or council developments or seek people’s views on community or council proposals.

Members of the community and others can contribute and comment in an interactive manner and whilst most is constructive and uses acceptable language, some individuals may use bad language or ‘cross the line’ into abuse or harassment.

If you are a Group or Page administrator, Facebook provides you with a range of tools to manage and moderate other people’s content or contributions to your Group or Page for more serious breaches of standards.

You can:

  • block certain words or apply a ‘profanity filter’ in the settings, this will stop such postings appearing in your page
  • hide or delete comments, photos or tags
  • ban or remove someone from your pages

Useful guidance and instructions are available on the ‘Banning and Moderation’ section of Facebook.
Administering a large Group can be a lot of work, particularly if group members are active. If that’s the case, you might want to share the responsibility with other councillors, friends or trusted community members. Guidance on making other people or administrators is available on Facebook.

With thanks to Ashfield District Council for permission to share their guidance on social media.