Counselor: Social Media, Open Records Responsibilities, and Social Media Archiving

NSPRA Counselor

Stephanie Hawkins
Stephanie Hawkins

Across the country, school districts are doing amazing things with social media. School librarians are creating “makerspaces” and posting photos of students’ 3-D-printed kazoos on Facebook. Online schools are using Twitter to create a sense of community among disparately located student groups. And administrators are finding alternatives to the bland newsletter or static website update with fresh, in-the-moment posts that keep staff informed and aligned in new and exciting ways.

As social media becomes increasingly ingrained in districts’ communications strategies, school communicators are, at the same time, becoming increasingly aware of the corresponding public records responsibilities. At the forefront of those responsibilities is the question of how to treat social media content; namely, how to manage the records created by school district communicators, staff members, students, and community members — especially when the district itself doesn’t control the platforms.

Social media and public records law:
What are your responsibilities?

School districts have always been subject to public records laws. While language may vary, all 50 states have wording that broadly defines public records as writing that relates to the public business, “regardless of physical form.”

In most cases, state open records laws were drafted decades ago, but as technology has advanced, so have the laws’ interpretations. Email, for example, is now universally considered public record.

And while, as with all forms of content produced by public agencies, certainly not everything on a district’s social media accounts is public record, some of the conversations that happen on a district’s social media are public record — a fact that has been found true in multiple legal rulings around the country.

Take, for example, California’s law, which includes some of the most commonly used language indicating that all electronic communication including social media is a public record.

The California Public Records Act (CPRA) defines public records as:

“...any writing containing information related to the public’s business.”

It goes on further to state specifically that “writing” is defined as:

“...any form of communication... regardless of the manner in which the record has been stored.”

While all 50 states have language similar to California’s law, some states go further to unequivocally clarify social media’s inclusion in public records responsibilities.

Here, for example, is an excerpt from Texas state law, which was modernized in 2013 to explicitly include electronic communication:

“The general forms in which the media containing public information exist include... email, internet posting, text message, instant message, other electronic communication.”

Texas goes on to further clarify social media public records requirements in its Department of Information Resources (DIR) Social Media Guidelines:

“Content posted by the agency or the public on an agency’s social media website is a state record...and is subject to State Records Retention requirements.”

What does this mean for schools?

That, on a daily basis, as schools use social media as a key communication channel, and as students and parents comment and engage, public records are being created.

School communicators tend not to be strangers to public records laws. Most communicators are used to getting public records requests from the media, individuals, or as part of the legal discovery process.

The challenge — as social media becomes a more critical part of districts’ communication strategies — is for communicators to understand how to protect their districts if they receive a social media records request.

And that requires having a deeper understanding of the issues.

The social media records retention challenge:
How is social media different?

Most district communicators are familiar with the ins and outs of records requests, yet social media brings up new challenges. Unlike email — which you automatically have a record of through your email service provider, or paper records — which you likely already have a system for retaining, social media records have three unique characteristics that make them a challenge for school districts from a public records perspective, namely:

  1. They exist on a platform your district doesn’t own. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube are all third-party platforms that have no responsibility to retain your records and can’t be relied on if you receive a records request.

  2. They include content you can’t control. Parents, teachers, and students post and comment on your social media pages daily. And they control what they post, which means that they have the ability to delete, edit, and hide content that you are ultimately responsible for producing if requested by law.

  3. They include content that’s associated with, but not produced by, your district communications office. Your district is responsible for capturing and preserving all social media content that discusses official school business, which means that every social media account tied to your district is subject to disclosure under public records law, whether it’s an individual school’s Facebook page or an athletic team’s Twitter account.

These three challenges — how to overcome reliance on the social networks, how to make sure you have records of all the content your users are posting and deleting, and how to manage and oversee all of the accounts associated with your district — are what keep many schools’ social media use from being compliant with public records laws, putting them at risk for legal challenges and all of the negative public relations attention that can come with them.

What, then, are a district’s options?

Exploring the options:
Critical concerns with two social media records retention methods

When it comes to social media recordkeeping, school communicators tend to take one of several approaches:

  • Take no action, and rely on the social networks to retain records;

  • Use a manual process, like taking screenshots; or

  • Use what’s known as a social media archiving solution — a system that captures your social media content in near-real time and preserves it in a separate archive, one that’s both searchable and includes the metadata (sometimes necessary for legal reasons) of each post.

Of these methods, the first two have significant hurdles when it comes to compliance.

  • Relying on the social networks to capture and preserve social media records assumes the social networks will retain all of your content indefinitely. But, in fact, the social networks don’t provide user comments and revisions to content (i.e., edited, deleted, and hidden content) in their download features. Additionally, the social networks are not subject to open records laws, and are under no legal obligation to preserve your records. This is a critical point — in an independent research study of over 500 customer accounts, ArchiveSocial found that more than 241,000 records had been deleted over the course of a 30- day period, either by the agency itself, or by users.

  • Manually preserving records while certainly better than taking no action at all, still leaves districts open to significant risk. Taking screenshots of social media posts is time consuming and inefficient, and in the event of a records request, it may be impossible to find the specific screenshot needed to fulfill the request. Additionally, screenshots can easily be edited or falsified, making them inadmissible in court, which can present problems for districts that need to produce records as part of criminal or civil cases.

The benefits of social media archiving:
A clear way to ensure compliance and centralize oversight

Social media archiving helps ensure public records compliance by capturing and preserving content created by both district agents and community users. This includes deleted, edited, and hidden content, which is often at the center of records requests.

Additionally, it enables stakeholders to search for their records using a variety of filters and keyword searches, allowing school districts to have confidence that they have the highest level of compliance with public records laws.

Moreover, archiving captures metadata for each post, ensuring that all captured records are legally admissible in court.

Beyond compliance, another benefit of archiving for school districts is the ability to have centralized oversight over all of a district’s social media accounts. Most school district communicators share the frustration of trying to keep track of all of the active social media accounts associated with their schools, and it’s easy to see why: Any school staff member, student, or even parent can set up a page that’s then used for official communications. With social media archiving, districts can easily register all official accounts associated with their district and have an archive of all district social media activity from a single location.

How three school districts are using social media archiving

As research for this article, we spoke with a number of school communicators who use social media archiving to find out why they began the process of social media archiving and how it’s helping them leverage social media in their districts. Here’s what they said:

Olympia School District, Olympia WA

Conor Schober, Communications and Community Relations Coordinator

Why did you start using social media archiving?

As the use of social media became more prevalent throughout our district, we wanted to make sure we had a firm grasp on the content that was being pushed out from all the various accounts. One of our main concerns was wanting to ensure everything we pushed out to the public was archived and accessible so that, should something come up down the line, we’d be able to go back and check the historical archive and say, “OK, this is what was said,” either by someone who was a representative of the district or a community user.

What triggered your district to take the plunge into archiving?

For us, it was a matter of needing the ability to search our various social media platforms to try and find historical content. We soon realized how difficult this was — that there was no useful search function in Facebook, making it extremely tedious to search for records. If someone were to delete a comment or a post, there was no way to get that information from our various social network platforms.

After attempting this process several times we realized that should we ever need access to historical records and need to turn them around quickly, it would be tedious, if not impossible.

How does archiving help your district achieve its goals?

Archiving has allowed us to open up social media to our schools. It has encouraged many of the schools throughout our district that would not have considered using social media, to open their own accounts. It's an added bonus for employees to know that their content is protected and archived and that they’ll always have access to what’s been posted, regardless of what end-users do.

Marion County Public Schools, FL

Kevin Christian, APR, Public Information Officer

Why did you start using a social media archiving system?

For several years we watched the social media world grow around us, in other districts and around the country. We had a presence, but I wouldn't call it an active presence. We decided if we were going to do social media, we needed to have some kind of archival system. Our concern was the public records issue, and also not knowing if and how we could manage social media so it wouldn’t be overwhelming.

I wanted to be able to monitor what was being posted and know that if anyone responded in an inappropriate way we could monitor it.

How does social media archiving factor into your day-to-day processes?

I regularly make sure all of our accounts district-wide are linked to our archive — I can export a report that assures me that they are, and lets me know if there are any accounts with issues. I also use it for internal records requests — for example, if our superintendent wants to know if anything has been posted on a specific topic, I can go into the archive and search by keyword, then export a report as a PDF to share with her.

How has the ability to leverage social media impacted your district?

I think our Twitter presence has increased the exposure we have as a district and the exposure our individual schools have. They’re able to post the great things that happen in our schools every day that people don’t know about because the media doesn’t cover them. We use social media to share info about college savings, community conversations with our superintendent, the schedule for tomorrow, that’s as a district. Then the schools boil it down to what’s going on at their level, which has allowed our parent community to be more informed.

White River School District, WA

Meagan Rhoades, District Assessment Manager

Why did you seek out a social media archiving solution?

At the end of last school year we had an incident at one of our schools that provoked quite a bit of comment on our Facebook page, some of it verging on inappropriate, and I think that made us all start thinking, “How do we have a record of things that are said on social media?” It wasn’t a huge issue, but it was like a little warning bell. We’ve been lucky when you look at things that have happened in other districts — we haven’t had those huge horrible incidents, but every school district should be prepared. It should just be part of your crisis planning.

What would your social media presence look like without an archiving system in place?

I think that social media is a different way to share information. People still go to webpages — they go to find a form they need to fill out or to get data on levees — but they don’t go to your district website for that constant daily update/positive news kind of thing. And that’s where we have the opportunity to tell positive stories about what’s happening in our schools. If we did not have archiving, we’d be much more concerned about monitoring comments or screenshotting things anytime we had a concern about a comment or where a comment might lead. Social media archiving lowers my anxiety level and frees up my time.

How do you use social media archiving on a day-to-day basis?

I manage all but one of our school Facebook pages — we have six schools and a district Facebook page. With social media archiving, I just feel happy knowing that there’s a little insurance plan in place. I’m pretty on top of what’s being posted on our pages and it’s nice to know that all of that is saved in the archive.

To learn more about social media archiving and view a sample of your school district’s historical archive, visit archivesocial.com.

ArchiveSocial works with hundreds of government agencies and private companies to capture and archive information shared on social media. The company helps public and private agencies comply with open records laws and similar regulatory guidelines. By connecting directly to the social networks, ArchiveSocial ensures complete, authentic, and in-context records of social media communications.

Stephanie Hawkins is the marketing manager at ArchiveSocial, a social media archiving technology company based in Durham, N.C. She has a Masters’ of Public Administration from North Carolina State University and writes regularly about issues related to social media, public records, and government transparency. Contact Stephanie at stephanie.hawkins@archivesocial.com.


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