White House Social Networking Raises Privacy Concerns

Published November 1, 2009

The Obama administration came into office as the most plugged-in group in history, using social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to great political advantage. But that instinct also has created privacy concerns now that the Obama team is in the White House.

Apparently not realizing it could be seen as threatening, the White House “new media” director asked Americans to collect any “fishy” dissents from its health care proposal and report them to the government by email.

Controversy After Controversy

Though the program was quickly shut down after a storm of criticism, the Obama administration soon stepped into another tar pit when many Americans who had no idea they were on an Obama White House e-mail list received messages from political director David Axelrod urging them to support the president’s version of health care reform.

Then in early September came word the White House was soliciting bids for a contractor to collect and archive information about Americans who leave responses on the administration’s social networking sites.

Fine for Private Sector

John Cass, a research fellow for the Society for New Communications Research in Palo Alto, California, says it is common for private companies to track such communications but it’s unusual, and new, for government entities to employ the same strategies.

 “There’s a whole industry devoted to finding [online] conversations about products and brands, sorting through those online conversations to determine what is positive, negative, or neutral, and building a triage process to route opportunities found within social media to people within a company,” Cass said. “Automated tools search the Web for content related to the keywords, brands, products, and issues that a company—or in this case politician—find important.

“Using social media monitoring tools, a politician or government can identify the most influential [people] within a social media community and try to address their issues,” Cass added. “If a company reads content on a blog from a customer that is negative, and at the same time has their e-mail address, I think it is natural for the company to reach out to the customer and ask what the company can do to address issues.”

White House Behavior ‘Odd’

But there are differences between what corporations do and what the White House did, Cass said.

“I did find it odd that a social media director would ask people in general to report incidents,” Cass said. “I think there are enough tools available that you don’t have to ask people, but it does make sense where a politician is using volunteers to help with community management.

“Though if a volunteer responded and did not reveal they were asked by the White House new media director, I’d say that was a case of astroturfing,” Cass added.

‘Absurd’ Mistake

“This was clearly a big faux pas by the White House,” said Scott Testa, a professor of business administration at Cabrini College in Philadelphia. “[The Obama team] is usually pretty good with the use of new media, but this time they made a mistake.

“It was so absurd,” Testa said. “I think that reality set in pretty quickly that this was not good policy. As with a lot of social media stuff, what they were doing was an experiment. But in many ways, it made people uneasy. Certain people don’t trust government actions.”

Letter of the Law

“I think it would be interesting to ask the White House for their guidelines for using social media, and also how they train volunteers in the use of social media on their behalf,” Cass said.

“If there are concerns about connecting content generated in social media with contact information, instead of indirectly addressing the issue through an email, the White House should contact the individual directly, mention the content, and set up a meeting to talk about how they can address the issue,” Cass added. “The problem is time and resources, how to correspond with so many people.”

The question remains, however, why the White House would not only collect its own posts on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter but also archive every comment by individual citizens on those sites even though they are not employees of the federal government.

The White House appears to be strictly adhering to the Presidential Records Act, which forces the White House to archive all electronic communications. The law is a relic of the ’70s-era reaction to President Richard M. Nixon’s purging of incriminating Oval Office recordings during the Watergate scandal.

Time for Upgrade?

While the basic elements of that law are sound, it is due for an upgrade in the digital age, according to Testa.

“It was designed to keep leaders honest, but now it applies both ways—keeping records of communications to and from the White House,” Testa said.

“People need to be aware of that,” Testa added. “If they don’t want what they e-mail being publicized, they shouldn’t communicate that way. They should assume that everything is on the record. It’s no different than before [the electronic age]. Individuals should assume that when they write a letter to the editor, it will be seen by a lot of people.”

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.