Comments Deleted: Social Media Commenting Policy
By J.S. Stansel
The need for a clear social media commenting policy
A recent ruling by a federal appeals court found that President Trump violated the constitution by blocking critics on his Twitter account. The court determined that as Trump uses his account for government business, he can not block citizens from reading his posts. With several other government officials in court over similar cases of blocking and banning users from their social media accounts, the full extent of the implications of this ruling is still to be determined. But there is no doubt that this will extend to government agencies as well as public universities.
Even when facing extreme criticism, blocking users and deleting comments is seldom a good idea. More often than not, it’s counter-productive. Criticism is par for the course when it comes to social media, but there are some cases such as spam and abuse where deletion and blocking are important tools to a social media manager. It is still to be decided what limitations public institutions have when blocking followers on social media accounts and the debate will probably continue for some time.
While the implications of the recent ruling are still being determined, now is a good time to take a pro-active approach and create or review your social media commenting policies. Even if you are not a public institution, these policies lay the rules of what is acceptable on your page and give you guidelines over what comments and behaviors merit deletion or the banning of the user. Also, strong guidelines give you as the social media manager the authority to say no when you receive requests to delete comments.
Here are a few tips to help you create a clear and effective social media commenting policy.
Have clear language on abuse and threats:
While as a public institution, you may have a responsibility to provide a public forum in the form of comments on your posts, you also have a responsibility to monitor and prevent abuse and harassment. Criticism, even when harsh, should never be deleted. However, when posts cross the line from criticism and petty name-calling to abuse, harassment or hate speech, they should be removed. These posts include anything that is defamatory or obscene, causes panic, uses fighting or threatening words, incites crime or demeans or harasses another individual or institution. Have a clear policy outlining what this entails and that such posts will be deleted and that repeat offenders will be banned from the page. Set a clear guidelines as to what is seen as obscene on your institutions page. To do this, you can use a rating system like those given to movies. For most pages, sticking to a strict PG-13 rating is a good rule of thumb.
In addition to removing threatening posts, threats or abuse targeted at a specific person or group should be documented and shared with the proper authorities. These include threats the social media manager finds personally threatening.
Set consistent profanity filters:
Facebook provides tools to prevent comments with profanity from appearing on your page. By setting an appropriate profanity filter, you can be consistent in what posts you don’t allow on your page. This filters both positive and negative comments that use profanity, that way you remain consistent and don’t find yourself deleting negative comments and letting the occasional over-enthusiastic positive posts slide. The deletion is made by Facebook’s filter tools, not you. Also, these comments are not fully deleted, but hidden from public view. This allows you to review any posts caught by the filter and post them if you determine that they are not obscene.
Facebook also allows you to add custom terms into the profanity filter in case there are frequently used terms or newer slang that you’d prefer not to have on your page. There are many slurs that Facebook hasn’t included in their filters yet, and you can add these as you come across them. You can also use this tool to add misspellings of commonly used profanity as well as workarounds made with symbols such as “@$$.”
Spam posts and bots:
Your comment threads should be a forum for discussion that is on topic or relevant to your institution. Just as one can’t go into a public city council meeting and start shilling for their business, users can’t use your comment threads to advertise their products or services. In your public commenting policy be sure to include that you do not permit messages selling products or promoting commercial ventures, petition solicitations, political campaigning or direct sales pitches. Facebook also filters many spam posts automatically.
Accounts that you suspect of being bots can also be banned. These accounts are usually easily spotted, just be sure to record examples of their posts before you ban them.
Document, document, document:
Deleting comments or banning users should be a rarity. It is the nuclear option and only for extreme cases. However, when the time comes to take action, it’s important that you document what posts caused action to be taken and what parts of your commenting policy have been violated. If you are banning a user, be sure to have documented every violation of your commenting policy. If the user wants to know why their comments have been deleted or they have been banned, you can then share this documentation with them. Your block list may even be subject to the Freedom of Information Act, so be sure that in the event you need to ban a user, you have documentation stating your reasons.
Make Internal Stakeholders Familiar With the Policy:
Once you’ve drafted your commenting policy, share it with university counsel for advice and approval. This may require some explaining and time if your counsel isn’t social media savvy. But with recent cases on this issue in the public right now, they should be familiar with the concept and open to the need for internal regulation.
Once approved by counsel, be sure that internal stakeholders and social media admins are familiar with the policy. When negative comments strike, so will the calls to delete them. By having a clear policy in place before it happens, you can deny these requests with some backup.
Make your policy publicly available:
Make sure your commenting policy is publicly available. Post it on your university's website and provide a link to it on your social profiles. If a particular comment thread becomes especially heated, you can share a link to the policy in the thread and remind users what is acceptable on your page. It’s important for the public to know that you don’t arbitrary delete posts. Having your policy publicly available makes sure this is the case.
Banning users and deleting comments should always be a last resort. It is an extreme measure and not to be taken lightly. As a public institution, the public has a right to see the information we share and express their thoughts on it. However, just as one can’t yell fire in a crowded movie theatre, there are limits. Having a clear commenting policy makes these limits known and can protect both you and your page’s followers from abuse.