Social Media can make government better, more accessible, more transparent, more accountable, all good things. But when elected officials decide that government social media accounts are theirs to use as they please, we may be in very different territory. Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum reminded us of that this week.
In 2015 the Benjamin Center studied how local governments in the Mid-Hudson region use their websites and social media. We found that nearly 97 percent of the towns, villages, and cities of the region had some digital presence. At the time of the study 60 percent of local governments had a Facebook presence, but barely one fifth were on Twitter. (This was in the sleepy pre-Trump era of Twitter.) In general, we found that the more open governments are with constituents, the more they engender trust.
Even though our study was conducted barely two years ago, it came against a very different societal backdrop. President Obama was behind the push for government at all levels to communicate electronically with the goal of increasing trust and accountability. These days cities like Kingston and Poughkeepsie maintain fairly active Twitter accounts and post frequently. This seems appropriate: In our fast-paced era, when even Facebook seems too onerous to peruse, governments that can blast quick info to constituents (especially missives that can be read on a phone) are reaching people quickly and simply.
But what happens to the trust that openness engenders when the public official steps out of his or her governance role, and uses official social media platforms to advance personal views, or agendas?
Once Donald Trump pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona, sheriffs around the country have felt emboldened to use social media to express their own views, sometimes using government platforms as their bullhorn. The latest but hardly the most inflammatory missive came this past weekend when Ulster County Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum used both Facebook and Twitter to tell citizens to boycott the NFL because, he argued, players taking a knee during the national anthem were being unpatriotic.
If you were ever in combat and were the last person to pull up the zipper on a body bag of your fallen… https://t.co/R1YNHu79dT
— Ulster Co Sheriff (@UlsterCoSheriff) November 11, 2017
This isn’t nearly as disturbing as sheriffs in Oklahoma trying to thwart criminal justice reform through use of official social media communications. Or one in Louisiana suggesting extending prison sentences of inmates so they can wash cars. The problem isn’t just the inflammatory language used; it certainly isn’t that government officials (sheriffs) elected to carry out the law—and not to make law—are voicing political opinions.
The problem is not what is being said, but where it is being said, and the implications for trust in government. Even if the personal views expressed were as benign as suggesting the public spay and neuter their pets, they are conveyed in an official venue and in an era when trust in governmental institutions couldn’t be at a lower ebb.
Our 2015 study sought to find out how much more the cities and towns in our area were engaging citizenry using digital platforms, it did not seek to gauge trust in that information. The latter is presumed; the study cites the idea that transparency and communication themselves engender greater one-to-one relationships with government, and thereby increase trust.
But the 2015 study did find one large problem with all channels of electronic communication between officials and citizens. Only 4 percent of the agencies that had a social media presence had published a specific policy about how these media should be used. One that did, the Ulster County town of New Paltz, only recently updated its own rules regarding use of social media. The policy clearly states that the views of elected officials are theirs alone—and also makes clear that any posts on the town social media that were deemed advocacy of these would be taken down.
Ulster County, as far as we can find, has no such written or stated policy, and so Van Blarcum’s use of the county’s official Facebook page for the Sheriff’s Department to disseminate his own views could not violate any such policy. It triggered both support and outrage, more the latter than the former. Opponents were angered not only because whether a player in the NFL sits or stands or kneels (or for that matter, salutes the flag) has absolutely nothing to do with the mandate or purview of Van Blarcum’s office, but because Van Blarcum used a platform he only has access to because of his job.
In his defense the Sheriff told the Kingston Daily Freeman, “They should know where I stand, whether they like it or not.” He’s right; he is an elected official, accountable to the county’s voters. But this is not the place to tell us where he stands.
Van Blarcum’s use of county social media in this way may draw needed attention away from the actual business of county government, for instance that the proposal to extend a walkway to the Ashokan Reservoir from Kingston this week cleared another legislative hurdle. Hope that such a path could further Hudson Valley tourism is part of Executive Mike Hein’s longtime agenda. Hein, a Democrat, refused to comment to the Times-Herald Record about Van Blarcum’s use of Facebook; Majority Whip Carl Belfiglio, Republican of Kingston, called it “a non-issue.” But two Democratic Ulster County legislators, Minority Leader Hector Rodriguez and Manna Jo Greene, told the paper that the county must change its policies and prevent public officeholders from expressing their personal opinions on county platforms. Actually, the need is not to change the policy, it’s to have one. The county legislature says it will take up discussion of the topic this week.