Bulletin: It’s Unethical For Government Officials To Use Twitter


Many law firms and other companies specifically prohibit their employees from using social media.  The reasons should be obvious: social media use is inherently reckless and unacceptably risky for professionals and those with high profile jobs. This is especially, and I would say fatally true of Twitter. It is an accident waiting to happen, and the more powerful the user, the more damage the accidents will be.

The latest example is the saga of Richard Stegel, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. He used his personal Twitter account yesterday to comment on the crisis triggered by the downed airliner in the Ukraine, prefaced the tweet with the State Department’s Twitter handle, and ended it with the hashtag #UnitedForGaza, which would appear to indicate his support of the Palestinians in its violent clash with Israel.

This is disturbing and diplomatically harmful for several reasons:

  • It is not, at least publicly, the position of the State Department. Stegal’s boss, John Kerry, was on the Sunday shows this morning unequivocally laying the blame for the conflict at the feet of Hamas.
  • Stegal position means that he is responsible for coherent and consistent public messaging, not the contradictory variety that encourages distrust and disbelief.
  • The hashtag could be, and has been, interpreted as support for terrorism.
  • Stegal has a history of anti-Israel rhetoric, even if the hashtag was an error in this instance.

Naturally, knee-jerk critics of the Obama Administration assumed that the sentiment expressed in the tweet was intentional; reflex defenders of everything Obama assumed that it was an honest mistake, arising from Twitter autofill turning a “#UnitedforUkraine,” which was included in his previous tweet,  into a “#UnitedForGaza.” I have no idea: neither explanation makes sense. Why would Stegal place #UnitedForGaza after a tweet about Malaysia Airlines Flight 17? Then again, why would Twitter assume he wanted #UnitedForGaza? I’ll accept that it was an error, but it doesn’t matter. The incident shows why it is irresponsible for an official like Stegal to be on Twitter at all. Nothing good can come of it, only bad.

The evidence of this is everywhere, from the seemingly lawless tweets of Democratic members of Congress (or more likely their staffs) advocating open borders, to the fake tweets under President Obama’s name that range from fatuous to dishonest, to Michelle Obama’s troubling frowny-face tweet in support of the kidnapped Nigerian girls ( it didn’t seem to help much, either, since they are still missing), to the latest nauseating development, the  CIA tweeting deathless information like the trivia that “It would take 33,707,520 soccer balls to reach from DC to Rio.” Whatever it costs taxpayers to send out tweets like this, it’s too much.

What the government does is complex, and those in power already seek to simplify it to the point of cretinism so the public either doesn’t know what’s going on, wrongly assumes that what is happening is being handled competently, or is misinformed. 140 characters are enough to deceive, but not enough to inform, and the danger of diplomatic and other gaffes caused by unfiltered access to the public far, far outweighs any conceivable benefits.

The responsible policy would be to ban Twitter for all government employees, or if that seems too broad, at least all highly placed officials.

(Even if such a policy might have meant that Anthony Weiner would now be the Mayor of New York City….)


Pointer and Spark: Instapundit

Sources: PJ Tatler

28 thoughts on “Bulletin: It’s Unethical For Government Officials To Use Twitter

  1. “social media use is inherently reckless and unacceptably risky for professionals and those with high profile jobs.”

    Inherently reckless? Really?

    “The responsible policy would be to ban Twitter for all government employees”

    Responsible? Really?

    Jack, you’re off base here, and sounding terribly like those who have decried communication technology changes going back at least as far as the printing press. Communication can be reckless, regardless of the medium. Banning one channel is not responsible — training employees to be savvy communicators is.

    • You have to do better than that. Answer this: what benefit are twitter communications in a government context? Who vets them? They are the equivalent of allowing every employee to send out unofficial, and stupid, press releases. Sure, the training rules are easy…they are the same as for any other communications. Proof read. Think. Don’t send anything you wouldn’t want on the front page. It’s futile—uncontrollable. Too many opportunities for error, too many users to monitor. Twitter has its uses, but it is too fast, too easy to misuse, too widely circulated to be able to take remedial action quickly enough to stop the bleeding. Ask Alec Baldwin. Ask Shia Laboef. Ask Eva Longoria…or Justine Sacco.

      There are a lot of legal activities government employees should forgo, and Twitter is just another one.

    • Wendy, I disagree.

      For a variety of reasons, statements made by government officials have historically – and appropriately – been made cautiously and comparatively slowly. Yes, an official might make a gaffe (defined as accidentally telling the truth) in the course of an interview or speech, but published and/or transmitted statements were appropriately subject to review.

      Editing, for lack of a better term.

      Twitter (and Facebook and other forms of social media), by contrast, are instantaneous mediums that essentially demand that users publish their IMMEDIATE thoughts; followers aren’t interested in opinions/descriptions that are days, even hours old.

      Perhaps even more importantly, older forms of communications didn’t support immediate re-transmission the way social media does. A tremendous amount of damage can be done very quickly via shares and re-tweets
      Citizens have a right to expect their government will operated in a measured, deliberate and cautious manner. Granting everyone with a government job and a mobile device begs disasters like this.

      You’re right that people should be trained to use social media. But the people who should be trained to use it are the people who are specifically charged with the responsibility to serve as a spokesperson.

      Everyone else should STFU.

      • The technology itself is not unethical. The channel is not unethical.

        Jack, you ask “Answer this: what benefit are twitter communications in a government context?” The very things that can make Twitter problematic can also be a benefit. Tweets are instantaneous and can be broadcast and rebroadcast quickly via retweets and conversations–a great help in emergency situations.

        Should everyone be acting as a spokesperson? No. And those who do should be trained and should be communicating as part of a broad, cohesive communication strategy. That strategy should reach constituents where they are — via radio, via TV, via public broadcast, via podcast, via skywriting if need be. Text messages, sure. Traffic status billboards, why not. Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube–if the people who need the information are on a channel, it would be irresponsible to rule out that channel altogether because it’s easy to be a douchebag or an idiot there.

        One can be a douchebag or an idiot in any communications channel. One can say something that could harm your employer while boozing at the bar or when sending an email to a friend. An ill-advised letter-to-the-editor or rant on a call-in radio show or comment on a blog can have just as much negative impact.

        A good social media policy–and training in it–and other tools already in place–like the Hatch Act–should govern communication through social channels. Banning one specific channel or social media altogether is far too constraining and ultimately futile — there will be another new channel that has new parameters and new ways of exposing douchebaggery and idiocy.

        • You know, I agree with everything you say in principle. In reality, as we have seen, it just doesn’t work. Used by elected officials, it reduces political discourse to bumper stickers, promotes incivility and disrespect for the government. It’s also used dishonestly and recklessly—how many officials actually check what is being tweeted under their name? It is unethical for a tweet from “Senator X” to actually be from “Senator X’s intern.”

          My compromise position is strict liability (or no-tolerance) meaning if you use Twitter and don’t notice an autofill that makes the SOS look like a liar and you look like you support terrorism, you’re gone. How about that?

    • Wendy:
      I think the following statement is compelling to ban government from using Twitter.

      “140 characters are enough to deceive, but not enough to inform, and the danger of diplomatic and other gaffes caused by unfiltered access to the public far, far outweighs any conceivable benefits.”

      How exactly does a person lay out a position in 140 characters? Twitter is merely a tool for the unimaginative designed to gain instant recognition for a macro point of view. We measure personal Twitter success by how many followers we have. That is what drives the revenue model. Twitter is a technology fails to give the sender the ability to layout any rationale for the argument and relies heavily on confirmation bias. Just how fast do you think it would take for some to believe that our current Secretary of State was a deserter in Viet Nam if some idiot tweeted that new evidence showed it was a fact. #Kerryrunsaway.

      The point is that not all technology is designed to effectively communicate an idea. Truncated verse may not capture the real meaning. Effective communication requires that the receiver obtains the same meaning as the sender intended. Twitter is incapable of ensuring that. The latest communication fad does mean that it is an effective communication tool; especially when one misstep can result in countless casualties – lest we forget what caused WWI.

      • I agree that it is ineffective for purposes of discussing or detail intensive informing. But I think it can be useful for quick announcements or links to further expositions. I think for expressing opibions or touchy feely political pandering is irresponsible. But, decrying twitter when it has useful summary *informtional* purposes is a bit like being annoyed that the Patriots used a horseback rider galloping through town yelling “The Redcoats are coming!”

        • Just like it would be irresponsible for a rider to come flying through town yelling “hey! Parliament has levied a new tax because they ym.bit546” then gone.

      • On your WW1 analogy, I don’t think missteps caused ww1. I subscribe to the inevitability theory and that what is astonishing is not that an assassination “started” ww1, but that ww1 was avoided for as long as it was.

  2. Wendy, we agree that the technology itself isn’t unethical. That was neither Jack’s point nor mine.

    USE of the technology is where the ethical problem lies.

    What Twitter represents, for good or ill – and I don’t deny the good it can do (such as your excellent example of broadcast of official information during an emergency) – is a new form of soapbox. Schadenfreude is such that it really doesn’t bother me all that much when a government official makes a jerk of him/herself like this. However, because Twitter gives people an instantaneous platform severe errors can be – and are – made. And these are not without cost.

    Let me give you my favorite example – non-governmental edition. A couple of years ago, the following Tweet came Chrysler Motors:

    “I find it ironic that this is the #MotorCity, and yet no one here knows how to fucking drive.”

    From CHRYSLER! Actually, not – from a low-level staffer at a digital marketing agency hired by Chrysler to manage its Twitter stream. Kid thought he was using his own account, and wasn’t. Chrysler was unmoved by the display of the kid’s head on a stake, and fired the agency too.

    Deservedly, I might add..

    Who was harmed? Well, Chrysler. And the other employees of the firm that didn’t have sufficient safeguards in place to keep this kind of thing from happening – AND THEY WERE PROS.

    Again: there’s nothing inherently wrong with the MEDIUM. But like any other medium, when it comes to government – or corporations, for that matter: if information in a tweet is material to the organization and its mission, those tweets should ONLY be issued by people specifically authorized to do so.

    Everyone else can continue tweeting pictures of their cat and their breakfast menu, and no harm will be done.

  3. I’d like to change two words in one of your sentences: “But like any other medium, when it comes to government – or corporations, for that matter: if information in a communication is material to the organization and its mission, those communications should ONLY be issued by people specifically authorized to do so.”

  4. “#UnitedForGaza” ???!

    If I am paying this guy’s salary, he shouldn’t be for anything except #UnitedStates

    Fire his ass.

      • I wouldn’t. If we regard our own property rights as sacred, and an essential predicate of personal liberty, then we have no moral right to deny it to the Palestinians. “Israel” was outright theft, where Palestinians with deeds to land granted by the Crown were forced off their land at the business end of a gun. Ironically, it is offensive to the Jewish ethos, as taught by Rabbi Hillel: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah.” [Shabbos 31a] Gaza has become a modern-day Bantustan, not all that far removed from the Warsaw ghetto. Even Pope Francis agrees. http://my.firedoglake.com/edwardteller/2014/05/26/netanyahu-pissed-at-the-pope-for-praying-at-the-apartheid-wall-attempts-to-humiliate-benedict/

        America should be doing the right thing.

        To me, Professor Marshall, this is at the core of what ethics is: When you stand for the rights of others, you stand by proxy for your own. Color me “UnitedForGaza.”

        • I’ll color you ignorant then: the only way one can hold that position is in deliberate rejection of history, law, common sense and ethics. It’s the purest fantasy, built on historical revisionism and amnesia, with a healthy dose of anti-Semitismn, and the essential ingredient of tolerance for terrorism.

        • Wrong, Bouldergeist. Of the outrages vis-a-vis Israel and the Palestinians, there are MANY sins on both sides.

          However, the foundations of Israel started long before World War II. Palestine, as a nation, never existed. There were Arab landholders in the area, and they SOLD land to Jews – purchases which were the foundation of Israel. Most of the so-called “Palestinians” never had rights to land.

          The Israelis were never pure as the driven snow. An argument could be made that they created modern terrorism, aimed, at the time, at the British. But they acquired most of their pre- ’67 land in ways most would consider legitimate – by purchase, or by grant – that grant affording equal opportunity to the Arabs.

          The Jews accepted it and created a homeland. The Arabs, who were basically nomadic and had no historic claim to the land beyond showing up once in a while or working for others upon it, rejected the concept and have been aggrieved ever since.

          The West Bank and Gaza were won in conflicts Israel did not start. Israel gave back Gaza only to see it assigned, by means of popular vote, to an entity sworn to its destruction.

          The Palestinians have had numerous opportunities to gain their own state – and have scuttled every one of them.

          I do not hold the Israelis blameless in any of this. Certainly, their continued expansion in the West Bank is both provocative and aggressive.

          On the other hand, these are lands they took after being attacked – lands that created a simpler border than they’d previously had to defend.

          Hamas could stop the current action easily – by ceasing the firing of rockets.

          And meantime, Israel is the only nation in the region in which ANY citizen, regardless of faith or background, can engage in a democratically elected government.

          As noted, Israel isn’t pure.

          But Hamas is scum, and deserves no sympathy.

          • Terrific, historically accurate, fair and balanced, factual and concise overview, AIM. Bravo. The news media should print it on front pages every day of the year until it sinks in.

            • Palestine isn’t even an Arabic word, it’s a name applied by the Romans in the wake of their ethnic cleansing of what was the kingdom of Judah in the 1st Century A.D. There weren’t any modern Palestinians while Egypt controlled Gaza and Jordan controlled the West Bank. Enter Israel and suddenly all these Palestinians crop up, mourning for their deep bond to a nation that never existed. They were a convenient tool for the surrounding Arab nations to use while they were still technically at war with the State of Israel, but both Egypt and Jordan have since signed peace treaties with Israel. They know it isn’t going away, and now these refugees by choice, some of them still carrying the keys to houses abandoned in 1948 when the Arab population left Israel thinking they would be able to just walk back in after Egypt et al made quick work of the new Jewish state, are an embarrassment, not a moral high anything. Only idiots throw their lot in with professional grievants and terrorists.

              But how did we get this spillover into a thread about the use of twitter by government officials? I’m a govenment official and I have a twitter account, though I don’t use it much, and more for musician-tracking than anything else. I think disallowing the use of social media is a little too close to muzzling the First Amendment rights of government employees, who are supposed to have the same rights as all other citizens. I can see it for employees in a military or paramilitary branch of government, whose job is to preserve democracy, not necessarily practice it, and I can see keeping personal twitter accounts strictly segregated from official ones, but not a complete ban. That said, any government official who is dumb enough to make a pro-terror tweet like this should be executed for treason. We in government exist to protect the people, not ally with those who would murder them

          • Many of those assertions are not actually correct, or are disputed. Would readers be willing to be shown some of those that are not established? (I don’t think I could establish the truth in an internet forum, or even be sure of working it out for myself, given how many interested parties could weigh in, but I think I could point out where people ought to go and research matters for themselves, for their own intellectual understanding.)

              • Pah, like the Muslim-lovers and America-haters ever let fact get in the way of a good rant. Go read some more Howard Zinn over the one cup of Five bucks coffee you can afford.

          • Right on. I was about to dispel Bouldergeist’s clichéd rant which is based on the traditional lies but saw you handled it.

            I will clarify:

            The settlement of land began in the late 1800s exactly as you put it, via legal and fair land purchases or settling UNOWNED land. If nomads and grazers want to moan about “tribal” lands, tough. Civilization ALWAYS displaces non-civilization – in rare occurrences, civilization abandons itself, but can be guaranteed to be replaced by another civilization not long after.

            It wasn’t until the early 1900s, when Jewish population in the land reached about 1/10 of the total population that the Arab’s there began to get concerned and Jewish presence was a leading cause of rioting there. Later, just before WW2 as the Jewish population reached 1/3 the total population, a major revolt occurred spurred primarily by anti-Jewish hatred.

            Sorry guys, Israel has initiated scant little if any of the violence it has been involved in.

  5. JackM: “Used by elected officials, it reduces political discourse to bumper stickers, promotes incivility and disrespect for the government.”

    A famous conservative politician once told me that if you can’t put it on a bumper sticker, you have no chance of getting it passed in Washington. Political discourse has always been reduced to bumper stickers, and the savvy politician takes full advantage of the medium. However, it might not be the wisest medium for our State Department to use, as their message needs to be cautious, nuanced, and carefully managed.

    With that caveat, I would submit that it is absurd to suggest that government officials using the medium is per se unethical.

  6. “I dunno” about a ban on Twitter use, despite how I personally detest the very existence of the medium. “Cautioned strongly” about use – to include training users to be media-savvy, and clear policies with strong enforcement of heavy consequences for violations – makes more sense to me. I say this because looking back to the early days when other-than-voice-only network communications were made available to the masses including e-mail, file transfer protocols and such, it seems that if a Pandora’s box within such media needed closing, it should have been (and perhaps could have been) done then. Reasons for restrictions on use, and for dire consequences for violating restrictions, seem compelling. But a de facto ban seems unethical.

    • It’s not unethical for any employer to ban conduct that is likely to reflect negatively upon the company and to undermine the employees performance of his job. If that likelihood can be reduced to a reasonable risk, then the equation changes.

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