Frank Zappone said he’d like to see the Town of Southampton adopt a social media policy before the summer season.
The deputy supervisor presented an early-stage procedural draft to the town board during a work session on January 30. The draft considers consistency across all social media platforms determining who has authority to generate posts, how posts will be reviewed, who can remove potentially offensive comments, and if the town will allow private-membership groups.
“We all know the pervasiveness of social media as a tool to disseminate information,” Zappone said. “We have had a couple of instances where comments that were made would not be consistent with town philosophy or town policy, and right now no one is monitoring the sites on a regular basis and no one has the authority to exercise control over what goes out on those sites.”
What he and the town is hoping to avoid, although there’s been very few instances of issue, is the dissemination of misinformation or opinion.
“There are in excess of 8000 people who are actively involved in the dozen or so Facebook pages and other social media accounts,” Zappone said. “That’s just the followers. That information spreads organically. Therein is both the value and the danger of social media — once things spread so rapidly, you lose less ability to control that, so the important thing is that the core message should be established under some agreed-upon set of guidelines.”
One thing Councilman John Bouvier would like to see addressed in the legislation sponsored by Councilwoman Julie Lofstad is a letter to the editor policy particularly when it pertains to citizens advisory committees.
“With no policy in place, sometimes letters are sent out before any committee member has had a chance to look at it,” Bouvier said. “Events don’t require as much scrutiny as much as a committee making a public statement.”
His fear is that public statement will make its way online and be disseminated across social media platforms. But he’s also thinking about First Amendment rights.
“I want to be sure we’re not placing the town in any jeopardy,” he said.
“We’re not trying to censor or silence anyone, but need to vet those opinions for things that are offensive,” said Christine Preston Scalera, a recently-termed-out councilwoman who is now working in the town attorney’s office. “But it is also somewhat subjective.”
“Social media is a powerful tool,” Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni added. “I certainly believe in transparency. I just want to make sure we do this right.”
Looking over the draft, Lofstad asked to clearly identify throughout the document that the rules pertain to both employees and appointees, which means groups representing the town like the citizens advisory committees, historic landmarks board, and others, to ensure it casts a wider net.
Councilman Rick Martel, asking how the posts will be reviewed, was told by Zappone posts will be looked over by department heads of those social media groups, and a monitor, like the town’s Graphics Supervisor Colleen Jones or Director of Information Management Paula Pobat. Posters can also ask that messages be reviewed by the town attorney’s office.
“These people are representing Southampton,” Jones said. “And the town’s social media pages are not places to share personal posts or personal feelings.”
She, along with Bouvier, favored eliminating any town-managed private Facebook groups known, or simply make them public. Each account will have to be registered with a town email address and link back to the town website. Zappone suggested a town seal on each account to ensure the public knows the page is official.
Supervisor Jay Schneiderman asked to discuss who can remove comments, because as it is currently stated in the draft, the town board needs to make that decision. Schneiderman said he does not want to have to call a special meeting to approve each takedown, and Schiavoni agreed it’s not the timeliest way to handle it. As it stands now though, the town board in the future would need to approve each new social media page created under the town’s purview.
The attorney and information offices will be looking over and adjusting the proposal. Zappone said the town board will receive a final version at the end of February, to hopefully be approved in March.