Thursday, January 10, 2013

When (if ever) is it appropriate for a government agency or politician to delete a tweet or post?

While a sideshow to the fire disaster sweeping Australia, there's been reports in traditional media and conversations online over the last day regarding the decision by the Australian Government Housing Minister, Brendan O'Connor, to apologise for and delete a tweet that claimed that a tweet from Australia's Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, was a political stunt as it highlighted Abbot's volunteer fire fighting activities.

Without delving into the politics of this discussion, the topic raises an interesting area for both politicians and public servants. 

When (if ever) is it appropriate for a politician or government agency to delete a tweet, post or comment they put on a social network?

Let's start by putting this in a broad context. Politicians and agencies make public comments all the time through many different channels. 

Occasionally these comments may contain mistakes, be factually wrong or otherwise erroneous, accidentally (or deliberately) insensitive, cause concern or harm.

Many traditional channels have methods for officially retracting these incorrect/inappropriate comments. 

In parliament politicians can request that comments be 'struck off' Hansard, the official record of parliament, a gesture regularly used as part of an apology for becoming too heated in a moment and, I suspect, the reason Minister O'Connor deleted his tweet - he was following the protocol of parliament when apologising. 

Striking off is no longer an infallible way to remove a comment from public view. Members of the press gallery and people observing parliament in the visitors gallery can repeat or publish comments made by politicians, now in real-time using social media. The video recording of parliament is also unedited so someone could go back over these videos and Hansard to identify which comments were retracted, and why.

Equally government agencies (and companies) who issue incorrect media releases can and do retract them, often done when information in the release wasn't fully accurate. Historically journalists have respected this right as they want the right information and respect the ongoing relationship, though this isn't infallible either. I can personally think of several occasions where journalists have used a retraction to run a 'gotcha!' story, portraying an organisation as incompetent for making a minor mistake.

The ability to retract comments also extends, to some extent, to verbal statements to media by senior officials. Where a piece of information was incorrect, a Ministerial office or agency may issue a 'clarification'. In some cases these may more closely resemble a 'correction' instead, and again while media may respect having the correct information on the record, a 'gotcha' story opportunity might tempt them into ignoring the clarification, or publishing both versions.

So retractions are an established part of public engagement - simply a reflection that we're all human, capable of misreading a situation and saying something that offends or that, despite copious checking, sometimes the wrong numbers, dates or words get used.

Social media platforms recognise this as well and most have methods to allow people to delete or hide messages they post accidentally or regret after the fact, with Twitter and Facebook in particular having robust systems for deleting tweets and posts.

These system are also not infallible. Any comment, once recorded on the internet, may be copied, stored and republished by others. 

While this may not be a major concern for the average citizen, for public figures, institutions and corporations, they can never rely on being able to successfully delete a social media comment.

Twitchy, a site that acts as a newswire for social media comments by politicians and celebrities, even publishes a list of the top 20 deleted Tweets about US politics each year and the Sunlight Foundation runs an entire site dedicated to exposing the deleted tweets of US politicians, Politwoops.

So - is it ever appropriate for politicians or agencies to delete a tweet, post or comment online, given they can't guarantee it will disappear without a trace?

I think it is - though only in specific instances.

If an agency or a politician publishes a social media comment that is factually incorrect then it is OK to delete the comment, provided they do so within a short time period (a few hours) and reissue the correct information.

I hold this view because if an agency or politician places a factually incorrect comment online it will be indexed in search engines and become part of the permanent record of what they've said - potentially doing future harm to individuals who rely on information from that trusted source. Factually incorrect comments can also cause confusion,if different information is published through another channel, so deleting the incorrect comment reduces the potential for user confusion when presented with two different sets of 'facts' from an agency or politician.

Alongside this retraction by deletion, the agency or politician should also publish a correction notice via the same social media channel they used to publish the original incorrect message. While this could be seen as calling attention to and damaging the organisation or politician's credibility, what it actually does is highlight that, while a mistake was made, it was corrected as soon as possible. People respect a good recovery and the majority will respect an organisation or individual for being willing to admit fault in order to ensure that the public has the right information.

Other cases, such as my original example, where an online comment is perceived as offensive, political or otherwise upsets people - but is either opinion or is factually correct, I don't recommend deletion. These are the messages that people look for to call an organisation or individual's credibility into question and deleting them only adds fuel to the fire (as it did in this case).

Instead I recommend that the organisation or politician issue an unconditional apology, using the same channel used to make the original comment, and, if necessary, post a correction, but leaving the original comment live.

While there can be a strong temptation to make the offense 'disappear' by deleting the offending comment, it is better to offer the apology as suggested above and, if someone specifically was offended, to reach out to them personally to ask if they would prefer the original comment deleted as part of the process - giving them some control over the situation.

If they do wish it deleted, then delete it, and if subsequently criticised for the deletion, the organisation or politician can simply acknowledge the concern and highlight that it was deleted at the request of the offended party. That tends to shut down criticism quite quickly.

So, in summary, when do I believe it is appropriate for agencies or politicians to delete a social media comment?

When the original comment is factually wrong in a way that could cause future harm for people who rely on it, and the comment has been live for only a few hours.

Otherwise the agency or politician should issue an apology and, if necessary, a correction. Then if a person or organisation was specifically mentioned in the comment, they should be asked if they wish the original comment removed.

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