Councillors and social media

This section sets out background information on the use of social media for councillors. With thanks to Ashfield District Council for permission to share their guidance on social media.

Two figures on podium making a speech, magenta colour background

Key points

  • Social media can be very useful in getting feedback on proposals and communicating information about councillors’ activities. However, remember that not everybody is on social media and so opinions expressed may not be representative.
  • Social media is always on, so consider setting personal limits and establishing your own routine. You have no obligation to respond to posts and comments at any speed but it is often helpful to explicitly indicate that to users. 
  • Councillors are subject to the council’s code of conduct when using social media.
  • Consider the content of your communications carefully and apply this test – if you would be reluctant to say it face-to-face or in an official email, then it is probably inappropriate to say online.
  • Once something is posted on social media, it is difficult to retain control over how it will be used. Think about this when posting.
  • Different platforms allow for different types of interactions. It is useful to indicate the aims and intended audiences of your different accounts.
1. Why you may find social media useful

Social media has become an every-day communications tool for councillors and the people they represent, and the potential for councillors using social media is huge. Social media allows you to be innovative and responsive as well as providing links to useful sources of information or sign-posting to other organisations.

In addition, it is a useful source of intelligence:

  • People will talk about local issues, their concerns and interests.
  • You can find out about breaking news, the latest research or publication or the latest policy announcements from organisations such as the LGA.
  • People often have little understanding of the councillor role and may have negative perceptions, but social media can give people a taste of your personal life and remind them that you are similar to them.
  • Residents can be made aware of and provide feedback to your work and campaigns, including mobilising support and interest and gathering followers.
  • You can have conversations with people who do not traditionally seek out their local representatives.
  • Social media allows for immediate communication. You can pass on information and receive opinions in minutes. You can forward information from other people equally quickly (bearing in mind that you would then share equal responsibility in law for anything later seen to be untrue or defamatory)
  • The local and sometimes national press will follow councillors on Twitter or Facebook. Social media is a growing source for stories for news outlets as each tweet or comment is effectively a mini-press release. 
2. Online safety, personal security and digital citizenship

Digital Citizenship, which has begun to be taught in schools, is about engaging in appropriate and responsible behaviour when using technology, and encouraging others to do so as well. It encompasses digital literacy, ethics, etiquette, online safety, norms, rights, culture and more. 

Developing digital citizenship requires us to improve online political communications. It is about expressing our opinions while respecting others’ rights and personas and avoiding putting them at risk or causing unnecessary distress. It is about respecting freedom of speech and dissidence while condemning abuse.

In any personal online biography, it is advisable to make clear that the views are those of the councillor in question and may not represent the views of the council. If space allows, you may also want to set out the aims of the page, the ‘response’ policy, such as “I welcome questions via email” and an ‘engagement’ policy, such as “abusive content will be removed”.

It is easy to put personal information online, such as your birthday, routines, places you frequent, future visits, holiday destinations, relationships, and opinions, etc, which are then available for anyone in the public domain to access. For personal safety, as well as identity security, you may want to consider whether you share personal information, images of friends and/or family and details of any routines. 

Social media platforms have different privacy options. You can choose different levels and change them depending on your own preferences.

Social media posts now include location-based information, particularly from mobile phones, which tells people exactly where you are or where you have been. Again, with personal security and privacy in mind, you may want to turn off these notifications. 

You can ‘search for yourself’ to check what information you can find out about yourself, your family or your business on-line. Checking this regularly means you can check what is in the public domain and edit it if necessary and possible.

Concerning personal security, it is advisable not to include on social media details such as your personal phone numbers, home address, details of family members or vehicle details. 

A picture paints a thousand words, and a photo can relay personal information you may not want shared on social media. As such, it is advisable to only publish photos of family, friends and colleagues with your consent and theirs, to ensure photos don’t reveal your home or places frequented with family members such as schools or care homes, and to disable automatic photo and location tagging so that you have to approve another user identifying you in a photo or being at a specific location. You may also want to make your family and friends aware that you will be following these precautions.

Some people say things via social media that they probably would not say in person, and they can post false information, insults or messages that you would not want to be associated with you. These can multiply and be shared quite rapidly. Councillors, and in particular female, LGTBQ+ and BAME councillors, are unfortunately increasingly the subject of online abuse, bullying and harassment on social media. See our section on handling abuse on social media for advice on how to manage this.

Having a social media presence means that people can contact you at any time. This is great in terms of accessibility but means that they may expect you to reply immediately, which can create a sense of pressure. It is useful to set your own rules and limits for how you manage your social media presence. 

You can be sent phishing requests and malicious software on social media the same as you can on email, so maintain the same level of vigilance. 

Be aware that some individuals post socially unacceptable, defamatory, inciting or even intimidatory remarks to generate online activity on the back of advertising or promotion of ideologies, brands or events. Similarly, the term “internet troll” is used to refer to a person or group of people who deliberately start arguments or upset people by posting inflammatory or off-topic messages online with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal discussion, often for their own amusement. 

Be aware that social media is the principal form in which misinformation spreads. It is a civic responsibility to stop the spread of this and misinformation. Very often articles that spread false information trigger strong emotional responses such as fear, anger or shock to maximise shareability. Individuals posting online are responsible for the content of their posts even if they did not originally create it. Councillors should very carefully consider the content of new posts, posts they have shared and posts they support.

Be aware of safeguarding because social media sites are often misused by offenders. Safeguarding is everyone’s business – if you have any concerns about other site users, you have a responsibility to report these.

The usual protocols regarding confidential information, copyright, data protection, purdah, exempt reports, etc, apply to social media. Avoid publishing anything where there is doubt or seek permission in advance. Your council may also have a protocol regarding the use of social media in the run up to, during and after both internal and public meetings.

To be an effective councillor you won't stop meeting people and posting leaflets simply because you are posting online. You will know your residents best - consider which channel works best for them to connect with you, online and offline.

To provide support councillors in their use of social media, it is recommended that councils have their own policies, protocols and training, as well as a point of contact within the council to give support and to report to if things go wrong. The LGA will be working with members to develop more detailed advice for councils in a future guide.

3. Responsibilities of councillors on social media

Councillors are personally responsible for the content they publish on any form of social media. Publishing  an untrue statement about a person which is damaging to their reputation may incur a defamation action for which you will be personally liable. The same applies if you pass on any similar untrue statements you receive.

Social media sites are in the public domain and it is important to ensure you are confident of the nature of the information you publish. Once published, content is almost impossible to control and may be manipulated without your consent, used in different contexts, or further distributed.

You can make use of stringent privacy settings if you do not want your social media to be accessed by the press or public. It is advisable to read the terms of service of any social media site accessed and make sure you understand their confidentiality / privacy settings. 

Some councillors choose to have separate social media profiles for personal and council use. It is important to keep in mind, however, that even the strictest privacy settings is no guarantee for posts or actions to remain private. As a rule of thumb, never post anything online you would not be comfortable saying or sharing in a public meeting.

The code of conduct for members and relevant legislation continues to apply online and in social media. If you are referring online in any way to your role as a councillor, you are deemed to be acting in your “official capacity” and any conduct may fall within the code.

4. Managing and moderating your own group or page

You may wish to set up your own councillor or community page on Facebook. These are valuable platforms to promote local information, news, events or council developments or seek people’s views on community or council proposals.

Members of the community and others can contribute and comment in an interactive manner and whilst most is constructive and uses acceptable language, some individuals may use bad language or ‘cross the line’ into abuse or harassment.

It is useful to indicate at the top of the page, what the purpose of the page is and what the intended audience is.

If you are a Group or Page administrator, Facebook provides you with a range of tools to manage and moderate other people’s content or contributions to your Group or Page for more serious breaches of standards.

You can:

  • block certain words or apply a ‘profanity filter’ in the settings, this will stop such postings appearing in your page
  • hide or delete comments, photos or tags
  • ban or remove someone from your pages

Useful guidance and instructions are available on the ‘Banning and Moderation’ section of Facebook.
Administering a large Group can be a lot of work, particularly if group members are active. If that’s the case, you might want to share the responsibility with other councillors, friends or trusted community members. Guidance on making other people or administrators is available on Facebook.

5. Managing your Twitter account

Twitter works differently than Facebook in many ways and allows different kinds of interactions. Facebook posts can be more informative because they do not have a limit to the number of characters. Twitter posts are limited to 280 characters and tend to have a shorter lifespan than Facebook posts.

When someone follows you on Twitter your posts will appear on their news feeds, giving them a real-time opportunity to comment on them. Abuse, harassment and intimidation can take place and escalate quickly. Twitter does not automatically remove abusive or threatening posts but there are actions you can take:

  • Protect your Tweets so they will only be visible to your followers. You will have the choice to accept or decline people’s request to follow you.
  • Filter Notifications - if you’re receiving unwanted replies or mentions from accounts you do not follow, you can filter the types of notifications you receive.
  • Consider carefully what you post before doing it. With 250 characters available to explain often complex ideas, Twitter posts can easily be taken out of context.
6. Dealing with harmful rumours and misinformation

It is difficult not to engage when you are the subject of rumours, misinformation and smear campaigns. While it is always tempting to respond and clarify every rumour and falsehood circulated about you, it is also useful to think about the emotional, economic and time costs of engaging as in many cases, rumours disappear as quickly as they emerged. Councillors and supporting officials have shared some strategies they have found useful to deal with this.

  • Calmly try to understand who is behind the attack. Most of the time, they are people with a clear agenda trying to gain control or to manipulate.
  • Correct the facts. This can be done with a formal statement or if you can identify the source, then do it publicly by correcting their posts with facts and evidence. Remember that supporting officers are there to give advice, support and provide facts.
  • Remember that rumours and misinformation are fed by repetition. It is good to defend your reputation but councillors and supporting officials find that the most efficient way is to do it once and then stop engaging this way.
  • Leave the environment the rumour is being spread. A smear campaign tries to manipulate and gain control but no control can be gained if you do not participate. You may wish to advise your followers that you will be logging out of social media for a period of time, which gives the rumour time to calm down while protecting your own emotional and mental wellbeing.
  • Rumours and smear campaigns can be very stressful and at times, they can feel very isolating. Keep your self-confidence by talking to family, friends and others in your support network. Some may also feel able to counteract rumours with factual information.
  • If you can identify the source of the rumours and smear campaigns, you should document it and keep a record. This may be useful if further disciplinary or legal action is required.

With thanks to Ashfield District Council for permission to share their guidance on social media.