South Carolina Social Media and the Freedom of Information Act (SC FOIA)

Public records laws are designed to make it easy for citizens to see what government is doing on their behalf. For the most part, they are written with intentionally broad language that is designed to still be relevant regardless of how technology and civilization changes through the years. South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act (SC FOIA) follows this model. It says that:

“Public record” includes all books, papers, maps, photographs, cards, tapes, recordings, or other documentary materials regardless of physical form or characteristics prepared, owned, used, in the possession of, or retained by a public body.

While the forward thinking language of the act keeps it from becoming obsolete, it can also lead to some confusion. Even experienced officials sometimes mistake the medium for the message when trying to decide what constitutes a record. The problem is determining what exactly makes something “documentary material”, and the key to doing that is to focus on content, not context. Many examples of South Carolina social media definitely fall under the definition of public record. We’ll explore some of them here.

Public Comments on Social Media Are Public Record

When state and local agencies first start using social media, they often just repost information and notices that were already shared elsewhere. But when municipalities treat social networks like a virtual bulletin boards, they miss out on the interactive element that makes social media such a powerful tool for citizen engagement. The public understands that social media is a two way conversation and expects their government to understand that, too. As a result, meaningful exchanges that can’t be found anywhere else start happening on social networks, and those exchanges are public record that need to be preserved.

One example of conversations that carry particular weight are those that happen on police department pages. Police departments across the country are harnessing the power of social media to gather tips and information on suspected criminals, identify suspects, notify the public of crimes, and publish public safety messages — all of which constitute important records. Here is an example of a post on the Greenville Police Department’s Facebook page that garnered 76 likes, 14 comments and 3 shares:

Greenville PD Facebook Post

Public Information on Social Media Is Public Record

Social media is one of the most efficient and effective ways for public agencies to communicate with citizens. Americans are already on Facebook and Twitter in large numbers and they feel comfortable navigating those platforms. Government run websites are not always user friendly and information can be difficult to locate. It is also unlikely for citizens to visit government sites daily, so they do not offer an effective way of communicating real time information to the public. As a result, social networks quickly become the primary source of information for citizens, and that information needs to be documented as records.

A recent example of this sort of information or “documentary material” found only on social media comes from the City of Charleston’s Facebook and Twitter pages. In this case, an important notice about parking tickets received during a bomb threat was published on the city’s social media but could not otherwise be found online:

Charleston SC Facebook

South Carolina State Library: Capturing the Social Media Record

One South Carolina agency that understands the significance of social media records is the South Carolina State Library. Digital Projects Supervisor Amanda Stone has been actively archiving social media since 2013, and knows the value of making these records accessible to the public. In Amanda’s words, “Our Social Media Library facilitates open and easy access to the important outreach efforts and rich interactions between state agencies and the public that are happening every day through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms.”

Amanda Stone will share her knowledge and experience with social media records archiving during a live webinar hosted by the Center for Digital Government on Thursday, March 26 at 2pm EST. This interactive learning opportunity is free and open to anyone interested in learning how to:

  • Create a collaborative approach to social media records management
  • Increase the constituent reach of your agency without sacrificing service
  • Create effective data retention policies and avoid legal pitfalls
  • Ensure both transparency and privacy without sacrificing either
  • You can register for the webinar here.