The Standards Commission is an independent body whose purpose is to encourage high ethical standards in public life through the promotion and enforcement of Codes of Conduct for councillors and those appointed to the boards of devolved public bodies.
Pause before you post!
26th March 2021
We are all aware of the huge advantages and pitfalls of social media and its impact in terms of political debate.
On the one hand, candidates and politicians can use social media to engage and interact with the public directly. They can keep the public informed about work and policy issues and can even combat misinformation. It gives them a chance to demonstrate they are interested, that they care and even that they have a sense of humour. Essentially, social media allows politicians to show they are human!
On the other hand, the use of social media carries all manner of risks. We’ve all heard stories about politicians being suspended from their parties or being the subject of negative press attention for posting inadvisable and, in some cases, offensive and abusive messages.
Even if a post seems, on the face of it, relatively harmless, politicians can also land themselves in trouble if they ‘like’ or re-post something that is contentious, as they can be seen to be endorsing the original opinion, comment or information. Tone can also be harder to convey online and sometimes something that is meant to be funny, ironic or sarcastic does not come across that way.
We’ve held Hearings recently where, in a bid to be transparent or to be seen as the first to know, councillors have breached their Code of Conduct by disclosing, on social media, confidential information about their local authority’s response to the pandemic. This was before the local authorities in question had the chance to prepare staff and ensure external communications were managed carefully, so as to provide reassurance and to not cause any undue fear or alarm.
In addition, politicians can be drawn into engaging with individuals who are being rude and abusive towards them and others. As some of our previous Hearings show, this does not always end well! We would always encourage politicians to consider whether there is any value in engaging in such circumstances.
We are, nevertheless, strongly of the view that while members of the public should make their views known and engage with those in public life, politicians should not be subject to personal abuse or bullying and harassment. They should be able to pick up their phones or open their laptops without fear of constant abusive messages, attacks and threats.
While we all may strongly disagree with a politician’s opinions or actions, this does not give us the right to bully or harass them. Democracy only works if individuals are willing to put themselves forward and stand for election.
So the upshot, for both politicians and members of the public, is pause and think before you post!
The Standards Commission has issued guidance and advice notes on the use of social media to help councillors and members of devolved public bodies avoid these pitfalls. This can be found on our website at https://www.standardscommissionscotland.org.uk/education-and-resources.