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How Government-Run Social Media Contributes To Misinformation

Maxim Sorokopud Maxim Sorokopud
23rd August 2021
How Government-Run Social Media Contributes To Misinformation

Note: The views and opinions expressed in blog/editorial posts are those of the author. They do not reflect the views or opinions of Misbar.

In early August, a number of tweets linked to the news that Florida had seen over 28,000 positive coronavirus cases in just one day. Florida’s Department of Health Twitter account began quote retweeting these updates, stating that the news was wrong, and using strikingly unprofessional language: “The number of cases @CDCgov released for Florida today is incorrect. They combined MULTIPLE days into one. We anticipate CDC will correct the record.” Bear in mind that this account is the official verified account for a department that is responsible for the health of 21 million people. By tweeting in this manner, it was all but undermining people’s trust in the CDC, which is exactly what happened. Soon, users began quote retweeting the Florida Department of Health, claiming that the CDC had been caught attempting to embarrass Republican Governor Ron DeSantis.

But nobody had been caught. The situation was not as sinister as the tweet implied. This figure was the result of a miscalculation at the CDC and had nothing to do with politics. In fact, Dr. Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida, explained that it was a simple error in division. “I think it’s pretty easily explained," he said to WLRN Radio. "I hear a lot of people saying, well, who do we trust, the CDC or the Florida Department of Health? That is not the issue.” 

Despite this many people appear to believe that the CDC was deliberately attempting to shame Governor DeSantis. Posts stating or implying this claim have gained a wealth of interactions. 

Did the Florida Department of Health stoke this misinformation? The false claims that the CDC was caught lying make it hard to deny that this was the case. The department could have acted in a much more professional manner to prevent such misinformation. For instance, when the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted about the 28,000 cases report, the Florida Department of Health retweeted the post, with a similarly worded tweet as quoted above, calling out the CDC directly with words in all caps. Instead of retweeting a local news source, the department could have just contacted the news agency requesting a correction. Or potentially they could have practiced damage control by sending an update regarding the claims that the CDC had been caught lying to make Governor DeSantis look bad by stating that this was not the CDC’s intention.

There’s also an argument to be made that the Florida Department of Health was just trying to use social media effectively. Some say that Twitter’s unique selling point is that it’s supposed to have a “bar scene” culture, where personality pays off. And the department’s tweets do not state that the CDC was attempting to defame DeSantis, as so many have claimed happened. Instead, that’s what other users have interpreted from the tweets which were factual but arguably unprofessional. 

This is a leading cause of why misinformation thrives on Twitter. It stems from the difficulty of government/politician accounts from adapting to a platform that really isn’t good for them. The clue is in the title. “Social” media is supposed to be social, not official. So when a politician or a government account posts on the platform, it often has to perform a balancing act of being professional yet fun. And what makes the balancing act more difficult is that social media is still an emerging form of communication, where the rules are more fluid and less established than, say, a prime-time news interview.

Ohio University has summed up how government presence on social media is essential yet incredibly challenging in the present day. The source states, “even the best intentions can go awry,” and that social media is where conspiracy theories thrive. It also provides some strong advice for those in charge of government social media accounts. For instance, its list of pitfalls for people to avoid when managing a government account includes using social media as a bullhorn and posting content that takes a political side. 

But there is a major problem with Ohio University’s recommendations. Donald Trump became president by using social media as a bullhorn, frequently posting content that divided people, with Twitter being his preferred form of communication to the masses. As most people know, these weren’t rare instances. His tweets were often unprofessional or occasionally outright racist. As a result, the way that politicians and government agencies interact online has changed significantly in the past seven years.

The U.S. government has written extensively on the issue of social media usage. Different government departments have published guidelines regarding the use of government and personal social media accounts. A recent Fordham University study into improving communication with public officials summarized the current issue perfectly: 

“Existing federal-level policies regarding public officials’ uses of social media are insufficient and inconsistent. The policies vary across the agencies and branches of government. The White House does not have a published social media policy that the public can view. Congress’s policies define key terms inadequately and do not guarantee effective enforcement measures.”  

Fordham’s proposed solution to the situation is for Congress and state legislatures to pass laws that govern public officials’ social media usage. Specifically, this proposed legislation would prohibit officials from blocking social media users who are not violating free speech laws. I find it hard to believe that such laws could be passed in America, at least not for the foreseeable future, as they would be far too divisive among politicians. It’s also unclear how this kind of law could be adapted to stop an agency such as the Florida Department of Health, from publishing tweets that have a strong chance of spreading misinformation. 

While it may be impossible for a country such as the U.S. to pass the kind of laws that Fordham University is proposing, potentially some actions could fix the misinformation issue. The Florida Department of Health’s social media disclaimer basically exists to free it of any responsibility or integrity from what its social media managers post. The department states this as such: 

“DOH does not guarantee that information posted by users is accurate and disclaims any liability for loss or damages resulting from reliance on any such information.” 

The health department of one of America’s largest states should not be able to disclaim responsibility for its posts so easily. A taxpayer-funded organization should be responsible for the content of its online posts and should inform its employees of how to represent the department in a professional manner. There should be a law that requires government departments to inform social media managers of the importance of posting in a manner that does not promote misinformation. This wouldn’t suppress free speech, as the social media managers can express their opinions on their own social media accounts. Instead, this just reduces the potential for government agency accounts from sparking misinformation. This policy would save lives, and not just in the context of coronavirus. If social media managers had been taught the importance of being accurate online, the Arizona Republican Party Twitter account may not have quote retweeted a Trump supporter who said he was willing to give his life to keep Trump the President after the 2020 election with the following text: “He is. Are you?”

Implementing an accuracy policy for government social media accounts is easier said than done. But I believe that creating laws that at least minimize the creation of misinformation via government/official social media accounts is possible. For instance, a law could adapt existing resources, such as the how-to guide to communicating open government, and require that government department social media managers learn these communication best practices. I believe that this approach could work and improve the lives of people no matter their political leanings. If government accounts have a better understanding of how to communicate,then everyone benefits.

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