The comments section of a post on the Wyoming Highway Patrol Facebook page highlights the problems that ensue when government organizations lack guidelines about how and what to post on social media.
A lack of policing of racist comments in the post reveals the blurry line that exists when it comes to government agencies allowing free speech on their pages versus censoring comments some might find harmful.
The Highway Patrol post example refers to an arrest made Feb. 9 in Sublette County. It shows three mugshots of people of color and gives details of alleged crimes.
“While conducting the traffic stop, troopers became suspicious of criminal activity,” the post states. “A search of the vehicles was conducted; multiple driver’s licenses, debit cards, credit cards, and checkbooks were located not belonging to the vehicles’ occupants.”
The post has almost 700 likes, 400 shares and more than 100 comments, many of which are racist.
“Just seeing the pictures, not surprised,” one man commented.
Sgt. Jeremy Beck, who made the post as part of his job as a public information officer for the highway patrol, said he hadn’t noticed any comments that violated their page rules, which are basically just no cuss words or threats.
Some government agencies have employees in place who follow internal rules about what they can share on their employer’s official social media pages, but at state and local organizations that’s usually just one small part of an employee’s overall job, and so keeping up with monitoring public comments on the posts they make is not a top priority.
“I try to but keep in mind I am just one person. I can’t monitor everything all the time,” Beck said. “If it’s offensive language, it gets hidden so to speak, but we can’t delete it.”
Facebook allows business and government pages to enter keywords that automatically get censored.
But Beck said he has a duty to protect the public record. He said manually censoring comments could violate the First Amendment.
“I am not silencing folks but making sure that if someone is going to hop on and use vulgar language … that is going to be hidden,” Beck said. “It’s not appropriate.”
The moment you make an online comment on a government page, it becomes part of the official record, even if your comment is vulgar or offensive.
Use the F word on a comment thread on a government page, and it will likely get automatically hidden, but administrators of the page can still see it.
And it could still show up if someone put in a records request for that unredacted comment thread.
Some say the racist comments on the law enforcement page are nothing new, and it highlights the need for page administrators to think before they post.
“This is pretty common and something I have noticed a long time in Wyoming,” advocacy manager for the ACLU of Wyoming Antonio Serrano said. “People of color are always shared more often within local Facebook groups.”
Serrano said the solution in this example is easy. Stop posting mugshots.
“Make the responsible choice from the beginning,” he said. “We shouldn’t let the government decide which opinions are hateful.”
Wyoming Highway Patrol usually doesn’t post mugshots with its posts about arrests. Those posts are usually accompanied by a photo of the agency’s badge.
Beck said he posted mugshots in this instance because the three suspects had allegedly fraudulently used credit cards in other jurisdictions, and it was more or less a call to action in case others recognized the defendants.
“It was just to jog people’s memory in case they saw them,” he said, which is why he said he also included the description of their car.
Serrano said the post not only hurts those individuals but it hurts all people of color.
He acknowledged that talking on the record with a newspaper about this particular issue will likely lead to him “getting some hate online.”
But he hopes educating people on better practices of anti-racism will lead to a better future in Wyoming.
“I know there is room for growth and compassion,” Serrano said.
The topic of social media, its impact on our beliefs and the effects it has on day-to-day decision making is ever changing and being studied by academics.
Dr. Kristen Dawn Landreville, an associate professor and researcher at the University of Wyoming, studies the impact of narratives on people’s attitudes and behaviors related to science and politics.
“Organizations should aim for a healthier dialogue,” she told the News&Guide. “Taking a step back before you hit ‘post’ and reflecting on word choice, tone, and presentation is critical in ‘best practices’ as well.”
Landreville said admins should try to anticipate what kinds of reactions a post will get before they post it.
“Consider inserting a brief statement asking for respectful dialogue, even in the face of others not agreeing with you,” she said. “Tell commenters that false information will be corrected, but genuine questions, concerns, or confusion about information will be addressed by a knowledgeable staffer.”
In response to a records request for its social media policy, the Wyoming Highway Patrol sent one that outlines how individual troopers and other employees should behave on their personal accounts. A records spokesperson said that’s the only policy on the books, meaning there isn’t one to guide the admins of the Wyoming Highway Patrol’s official channels.
The Teton County Sheriff’s Office recently revised its “Facebook comment policy.”
“We welcome your input and positive comments,” the policy, shared with the News&Guide by Lt. Lloyd Funk, reads. “The purpose of this site is to present matters of public interest to the residents of Teton County, Wyoming. We encourage you to submit comments, but please note this is NOT a public forum. The Teton County Sheriff’s Office social media profile and pages are a family-friendly outlet to promote our agency’s activities, events and programs.”
Under a disclaimer that they are not obligated to respond to comments, the agency outlines what is prohibited on its page.
We will remove comments that include the following:
• Obscene, profane, rude, sexual or vulgar language or images
• Personal attacks or offensive terms that target specific individuals or groups
• Threats or defamatory statements
• Violent, hateful or racist language
• Advocacy for any illegal activity
• Off-topic or repetitive posts (spam)
• Outdated, inaccurate, false or misleading information
• Promotion or opposition to political organizations, campaigns, candidates, or pending legislative action
• Personal information, including but not limited to addresses and telephone numbers
• Web links to any site
• Advertisements or solicitations of any kind
• Infringement on copyrights or trademarks
“We do not discriminate against any views but reserve the right to remove posts that violate the above policies or that are deemed inappropriate,” it states. “The Teton County Sheriff’s Office social media team reserves the right to close comments at any time on its social media site. Repeated violations of our comment policy may cause the author to be blocked from the Teton County Sheriff’s Office social media account.”
The University of Wyoming’s Dr. Jason McConnell, who studies free speech, public communication, law, and social media, said there are no regulations at any level of government for online behavior.
“Social media, by the very nature of the medium, encourages divisiveness and incivility,” he said. “Folks behave worse online, as compared to face-to-face, because the vast majority of social and psychological cues to interpersonal interactions are removed, in the social media context.”
How government officials and employees act on social media is an interesting debate of our day, McConnell said.
“The options are actually pretty straight forward, each with its own benefits and problems,” he said. “At one extreme, the government actor can let all the commentary develop unrestrained. This avoids claims of censorship (which the First Amendment might prohibit) but raises the potential of legal and political problems.”
McConnell offered up the other extreme, which is shutting down all comments.
“But this commonly brings out calls of censorship,” he said.
The middle ground is problematic too, McConnell said.
“Somewhere in the middle they can try to develop their own policies about appropriate comments or posts, but this picking and choosing frequently brings claims of viewpoint discrimination — which government is not allowed to do.”
McConnell said when some organizations sued Donald Trump for blocking people on Twitter during his presidency, they claimed he violated the First Amendment.
This was as close as the U.S. has come to some sort of directive when it comes to government online behavior.
“The federal trial court determined that the President had chosen to create a “public forum” by creating and using the Twitter account in his official capacity,” McConnell said. “On appeal, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. Nevertheless, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the case as moot on April 5, 2021 because Trump was no longer in office.”
That means there is still no definitive answer as to whether or not a government actor violates the First Amendment when they “take action to block or censor social media posts in response to their own originating post,” McConnell said.
But McConnell said it would be inaccurate to think that social media is unregulated just because the government has failed to regulate it.
Social media companies have their own standards and terms of service, and those are developed and enforced at the discretion of those companies.
That leaves private companies having more regulatory influence over speech than the government.
“Where does that leave agencies like Wyoming Highway Patrol?” McConnell asked. “It seems as though they’re muddling through the morass of anti-social media, just like the rest of us.”