Archiving the First Social Media Presidency: Fulfilling Public Records Requirements for the Highest Office in the Land
Over the past decade, social media has increasingly become one of the primary ways to share information and connect with others. This is not only true for individuals in their personal lives, but also for government agencies. This trend extends to the highest government office in the United States — the presidency.
Social media was a key tool for the Obama administration to communicate with American citizens and the world. President Obama has even been referred to as the first “social media president” because of the administration’s embrace of this technology. According to Kori Schulman, Deputy Chief Digital Officer for the White House, “From the very beginning, our mission has been to reach Americans and people around the world on the channels and platforms where they already spend their time.”
Because social media was used for official communications, it is considered a public record and is subject to certain laws. Specifically, the Presidential Records Act (PRA) requires the preservation of records created or received by the president or his staff. When a president leaves office, these records are then transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which ensures records are preserved and accessible to the public.
Although the PRA was written nearly 40 years ago, electronic communications are included in the Act’s broad definition of presidential records. In fact, in the very first year of the Obama administration, the White House issued a blog post  detailing the relevance of the PRA to social media posts stating, “the PRA requires us, by law, to preserve them.” While the requirement to capture and retain presidential records of social media was clear to White House staff, the fulfillment of those requirements was a significant and challenging undertaking. Thanks to a variety of approaches, including the use of automated archiving technology provided by ArchiveSocial, the Obama White House could archive and transition the digital records of the first social media president.
The Digital Transition Plan
In late 2016, the White House digital team announced the Digital Transition, a plan to archive its electronic records and transfer official social media profiles to the following presidential administration. According to the plan, existing White House social media profiles would be transferred to NARA and maintained as archives on the social networking platforms. For example, the @POTUS Twitter handle would transition to @POTUS44, an account maintained by NARA, to ensure President Obama’s tweets continued to be accessible to the public. However, maintaining content on the social networks alone would not be sufficient to fulfill long-term PRA requirements.
Creating and transferring a complete archive of White House social media accounts presented several challenges for the administration. The primary obstacle was the vast amount of information to preserve, which spanned content from more than 150 different profiles on over a dozen different social networking platforms. The White House Twitter account alone shared more than 28,000 tweets during the eight years of the Obama administration. Additionally, there were thousands of photos and hours of video footage across all the networks to be archived.
Archiving Presidential Records with ArchiveSocial
The White House digital team leveraged ArchiveSocial’s platform to capture the social media history of more than 100 official White House social media accounts across nine platforms and transfer the social media records to NARA for preservation. The records produced by ArchiveSocial provided several key benefits according to Schulman: “It was important that the social media data could stand the test of time and retain valuable context, such as capturing high resolution assets along with the related captions and metadata. ArchiveSocial helped to automatically capture high fidelity data and present it in an open archive which not only enriches the records transferred to NARA, but makes the material transparent and accessible to the public.”
Included in the White House’s digital transition plan was a call-to-action to make the data more accessible to the public. The use of ArchiveSocial to capture the presidential records created a natural opportunity to launch a fully searchable, public-facing archive of the administration’s social media content by leveraging ArchiveSocial’s turn-key Open Archive platform. The Obama White House Archive, available at /whitehouse, showcases more than 250,000 posts generated by White House staff across the eight years of the Obama administration. “The opportunity to create this historic open archive for our 44th president is truly an honor, and resonates deeply with the core mission of our company to promote open dialogue and transparency,” said Anil Chawla, CEO of ArchiveSocial.
Chawla admits that the collaboration with the White House created an unprecedented level of complexity for a social media archiving vendor. “Despite our ongoing work with the largest cities and counties in the nation — including places like Chicago, Orlando, and Dallas — we were amazed by the scale and volume of data generated by the White House. At one point, I actually carried a physical hard drive with me on a flight to the White House containing a terabyte of ArchiveSocial exports so that NARA would not have to wait for the downloads,” said Chawla.
In total, ArchiveSocial processed more than 10 million social media records and transferred more than 450 exports comprising over four terabytes of data — all in less than eight weeks. Additionally, the White House’s use of social media throughout the presidential transition required a process to capture and export data all the way through the final hour of the Obama presidency. Chawla explains, “our first pass was to capture and transfer all records through the end of 2016. Then, in January, we implemented a rolling process to archive and export the remaining data ‘on demand’ as the White House closed down each social media profile. On January 20, we transferred one last export containing the final tweet from President Obama as @POTUS.”
While the effort to archive eight years of social media usage by the White House was truly a historic endeavor, Chawla is quick to point out that social media record keeping requirements affect public agencies of all types and sizes on a daily basis. “The presidential transition was a great reminder of the importance of public records laws and the need to retain social media,” concludes Chawla. “The good news is that the exact technology used to capture records for the president is equally accessible to the smallest agencies in the United States.”
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