Thursday, February 07, 2013

A counterpoint & follow-up to my post on: Should government agencies & councils be entitled to ban people from their social media channels?

The example I used related to a Twitter conversation I'd had with Peter Hinton, who had been blocked from Parramatta City Council's Twitter account. As a Parramatta council resident and rate-payer he was concerned at his experience.

I didn't have details of his specific case, nor did I make any claims about his comments or the council's decision, rather using the situation to explore the area of agencies blocking citizens on social media channels.

Peter has published an articulate and well-reasoned letter providing details about his experience of being blocked. I thought it worth featuring as a counterpoint to my post, which he has kindly allowed me to republish as a guest post below.

Without commenting on the specifics of Peter's situation, I believe Peter's letter supports my views from yesterday. Agencies and councils have the capability (and willingness) to block citizens on social channels and they need clear guidelines in place about why, when and how they block them (if they do).

This needs to be supported by appropriate governance and scrutiny such that inappropriate blocking can be identified and corrected, with appropriate changes to processes or staff if required.

Peter Hinton:

If you’ve got a Twitter account and even the teensiest amount of gumption, you’ll probably know what it is to be blocked. Some receive a blocking with a sense of pride while others prefer to take offense. I’ll never forget the feeling of exhilaration when I received the telltale FORBIDDEN message when attempting to access the account of a Pray Away the Gay preacher in the US.  
Whether it’s used ag ainst an ex-lover or a dissatisfied customer that just won’t stop hijacking a carefully planned social media campaign, the result is the same. The blockee can no longer view, let alone comment on, your tweets. If you include their handle (eg: @peterjhinton) in one of your own tweets, it will be seen by others but not the intended recipient.  
Throughout my 10,000 tweet career on the world’s most popular microblog, I’ve been both the blocker and the blockee on many an occasion. 
But when I was blocked by Parramatta City Council last week, my immediate feeling was one of disenfranchisement . You see, I’m a resident of Parramatta. I pay rates to its council. I participate in the local government elections that install the Councilors who decide on matters that are quite literally close to home.  
My council isn’t a celebrity whose films I can ignore or an international brand that I can choose to boycott. To be blocked by a level of government is whole other matter and, I’d like to suggest, one that challenges the role of social media in our young democracy. 
Many Australians are surprised to learn that the drafters of our Constitution neglected to explicitly include many of the rights and freedoms that we exercise on a daily basis. There’s a whole section dedicated to lighthouses and telegraphic services but you will not find one reference to ‘freedom of speech’. For a document that forms the basis of our legal system, it lacks all of the life, liberty and pursuit of shiny things that spring from the parchment of the American Declaration of Independence. 
In fact, one of the few freedoms we officially enjoy is merely inferred. In the 1997 case of Lange vs. the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the High Court ruled that Australians had a constitutional right to freedom of political communication. While it’s not explicitly stated in the actual document, the full bench deemed free and open political communication to be vital to the preservation of democratic and responsible government. 
It’s this ruling that gave me the confidence to criticize my Lord Mayor, John Chedid, over his office’s treatment of the GLBT family support organization,Twenty10.  
On 17 January, dedicated Twenty10 volunteers were helping kids build kites at Parramatta City Council’s Family Fun Day when advisers, allegedly acting on Chedid’s advice, ordered the removal of the organisation’s signage. Chedid has never denied the allegations, instead stating that his advisers were only responding to complaints that the sign was “offensive”. Chedid eventually issued a private apology to Twenty10 but only after 12,000 people signed a petition demanding he do so
Like thousands of other netizens, I took to Twitter to hold my Lord Mayor accountable for the actions of his office. My comments swung wildly between the visceral and rational but they were always based on statements provided by either Twenty10 or Parramatta City Council. 
Council stuck to their social media crisis handbook. They knew not to block me while the crisis was still building. That would only aggravate the situation and provoke accusations that it had something to hide. Instead, it waited for the inevitable moment when the Twitterverse was caught in the gravitational pull of someone else’s very public faux pas. 
The realization that I had been blocked by my local government came on a Saturday morning one week after #ChedidGate when I attempted to review @parracity’s Twitter stream. My kids were bored and I wanted to see if Council was running any (ratepayer funded) activities. What I got was a big cross and the word FORBIDDEN. 
Forbidden? For what?! Surely not for exercising my right comment on the suitability of elected officials for public office! Surely not for defending some of Australia’s most marginalized families! You can bet it wasn’t for all of the favourable tweets that I’d submitted over the years: the photos of my kids laughing in playgrounds that were eagerly retweeted by Council’s own social media apparatchik. 
While social media offers new opportunities for citizens to converse with all three levels of government it’s a conversation for which the rules are still being defined. You only have to look at the replies to Julia Gillard’s or Tony Abbott’s tweets to know that the conversation isn’t always polite. But, then again, there was nothing in the High Court’s ruling to suggest that political communication needs to be polite. 
Constituents were insulting politicians long before Twitter, whether it was in a Letter to the Editor or a town hall meeting. Which leads conveniently to my mainpoint: there would be serious implications for the council that barred a ratepayer from a town hall meeting and quite rightly so. 
When it decided to block me, my council made a conscious decision to deny me access to its virtual town hall meeting. I’m not so unreasonable as to suggest that I’m now completely shut off from my politicians. I could still write a letter or appear before them in a real town hall meeting. 
My sense of disenfranchisement stems from the fact that somewhere inside the intensely ugly administration building of Parramatta City Council, a public servant took away a small part of my freedom. They did so without having to appear before a judge or even advise the person from which the freedom was removed. It was swift, opaque and final.  
I understand and even appreciate that social media offers few boundaries. It’s precisely because it’s not encumbered by the rules of the old guard that it’s become such a powerful tool for grass roots democracy. But, with your permission, I’d like to tender just one overarching rule: it should never be used by government to disempower its citizens.


  1. Thanks for posting the further information.

    I will call myself a social media expert (while I don't really like to... I feel I'm qualified given I'm considering doing my PhD in this field and already have obtained my Masters in Marketing Communications specialising in this field and have reasonably extensive practical experience in this area)...

    I think we (particularly government agencies!) can be a bit 'OTT' when it comes to establishing, what I see as, unnecessary protocols and and codes of conduct when there is already a legal framework we can apply to most scenarios.

    Just thought I'd share my response to a colleague when asked whether we should have 'contribution guidelines' on our social media sites. What I did NOT say, is that protocols (rules) can exacerbate reluctance regarding genuine engagement. The fact is, most people are decent and know when they're crossing the line. They are also generally aware that there are implications for crossing the line.

    Question from colleague (after we received a comment on a social media activity we had instigated):

    Do people scan the web for words or terms in blogs so that they can comment? Is that what a troll is?
    Maybe we should have terms of use on our website for social media interactions.

    My response:

    I think this one was pretty legit (ie, genuine interest in subject matter).

    A troll is usually a hidden identify (or at least an attempt at a hidden identity!), and purposefully baits the author or org, usually with a hidden (and malicious) intent. True trolls are actually pretty rare. You need to be proper psycho with too much time on your hands. Trolls have no intent of engaging in debate. The way the question was posed was a bit troll-like, but often trolls don’t expect a response and just want their negativity to be the last impression future visitors have on the topic. If you bait the trolls, they keep going. If you leave it at a first and reasonable response and they continue ranting, they are the ones that look silly (though a minority will still probably agree with them. The risk is, sometimes these minorities are quite vocal and judgement needs to be exercised regarding entering the debate).

    I don’t think we need any ‘code of conduct’ for visitors participating in our sites. It’s generally unsaid that you don’t ‘cyber-bully’ (and becoming known that litigation can occur). There’s a legit case for reprimanding unconscionable conduct whether it be in person or electronically (the case comes to mind where a dude was going into centrelink offices and ‘flinging poo’ at unsuspecting public servants. He was arrested. There was no sign saying ‘please do not fling poo at the counter staff’).

    Food for thought (not the poo bit!). Alex

  2. Hi Alex,

    I think that organisations (government or otherwise) should have community guidelines for the online communities they manage.

    While it's great to assume that people know how to behave, there's still many situations when people are new to online discussions and tips on appropriate conduct are just as useful as it is to have a dress code on party invitations.

    Guidelines help avoid people guessing and cut risk for organisations by giving them a framework they can remind people of and enforce where necessary. Setting the context of a community upfront saves endless hours of moderation, management and even litigation down the track so yes, in my view community guidelines (a 'code of conduct' or 'ground rules' if you like) is necessary in most online communities - and most offline ones - particularly for government where there's imperatives to be inclusive. All that changes is how it is communicated.

    Your definition of a troll isn't on the money. They don't necessarily have malicious intent and many love engaging in debate - as they are seeking attention. Nor are they necessarily psychos and many are very clever at understanding the rules and staying just inside them - so experience is the key to dealing with them. Your tactics will work sometimes, but not always - flexibility is the key.