Durham County

Are tweets the new phone tree? Council monitors its messages.

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Social media use can’t be casual anymore for elected officials who use it for Bull City matters.

After passing the city’s first social media policy for elected officials on Monday, the Durham City Council took up the policy again on Thursday.

While a social media policy has been in the works for months, the discussion comes a month after a social media-fueled anti-white supremacist protest Aug. 18 in downtown Durham five days after protesters brought down a Confederate statue on Main Street.

Council member Jillian Johnson’s tweets about white supremacist sightings were questioned, and after the counterprotest Mayor Bill Bell said there needed to be a conversation about social media.

“I think it’s interesting social media becomes the villain in the story,” Johnson said after Thursday’s work session. In another era, people would use phone trees and signs, she said.

“Social media has made those lines of communication faster and easier. I think it’s misplaced assignment of concern to the medium,” Johnson said.

City Council member Charlie Reece said that information flow was really important on the day of the Aug. 18 protest, but he wasn’t able to keep up with all those responding to him on social media in real time.

“We all used that event to decide how social media should be going forward,” Reece said.

“Obviously there are positives and negatives to people having direct access to an audience and we’ve seen that play out in our last presidential election,” Johnson said.

While Johnson and Reece are the most active Council members on social media, neither uses social media notifications on their phones.

“I check it when I want to check it. I own it. It doesn’t own me,” Johnson said.

The new social media policy is not just for city council members, but commissions and committees, too, which can also have their own official social media accounts. Council members looked at how to police public comments on those pages, and talked enough about specific wording that Council member Don Moffitt said “we’re making sausage here.”

The City Council is expected to vote on an updated policy at its next meeting on Oct. 2.

The new social media policy revisions takes into consideration recommendations from the director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition, Durham resident Jonathan Jones. Jones told council members that a problem across government agencies and elected officials is a failure to understand their responsibilities to retain records including social media now. Professional social media accounts will be archived.

The vote at Monday’s Council meeting came in at 4-3 with Mayor Bill Bell, who does not use social media, urging the Council to pass it just to get a policy in place.

The city’s new social media policy prohibits officials from using social media in a way that violates local, state and federal law, including campaigning for re-election on professional social media accounts. The version passed Monday, and upheld during Thursday’s work session, dismissed a segment about not sharing what amounts to rumors on social media.

Both Johnson and Reece have started new Twitter accounts in the past month just for city matters, and still maintain personal Twitter accounts as well. On Facebook, Reece is using his council member page to do Facebook Lives, which are live videos on Facebook, to go over the council work sessions.

Reece said Thursday that he started his official council Twitter account to “make sure I could get information out to constituents in an official way so people don’t have to wade through pictures of my kids and what I think of the president.”

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan