The US government should preserve the social media histories of officials, not delete them

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This week, a new Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took the oath of office, but not the access credentials for @FDACommissioner on Twitter.

Instead, Dr. Stephen M. Hahn began tweeting at @SteveFDA, after FDA staff changed the @username of the account FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb used in office, inheriting more than 44,000 followers.

But the FDA did more than rebrand the account: they also deleted Gottlieb’s old tweets and the @SGottliebFDA username. (They also deleted a retweeet of the @FDACommissioner account without notice, which suggests the agency had initially pursued a different strategy.

“This was a logistical decision made at the staff level that is in compliance with all applicable law,” the FDA claimed to Politico. “We are grateful to Dr. Gottlieb for increasing FDA visibility through Twitter and we will continue to use social media as a key vehicle to communicate public health information.”

Deleted_tweets_for_FDAAdministration.jpgThe thousands of tweets by the former commissioner of the FDA were not deleted forever: the public can read @SGottliebFDA’s statements on the Internet Archive, through its Wayback Machine, or browse the deleted tweets on ProPublica’s Politwoops archive.

But these tweets aren’t just the statements of a local physician about public health: they’re public records.

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At a minimum, the tweets should have been downloaded, scheduled, and archived under the Federal Records Act. (Otherwise, this would be an unauthorized disposition.)

If there is such a record, the FDA could make them available for public inspection through its website, perhaps at fda.gov/open. (Currently, the FDA’s transparency page is only linked through a footer at open.fda.gov.)

[UPDATE: Following criticism and press coverage, the FDA published a “Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb Twitter Archive (in a 3.7 MB compressed ZIP file in the “newsroom” section of its website. I downloaded the archive, opened it, and then uploaded the .CSV to Google Spreadsheets and published it as a searchable online archive.

A “current senior FDA official” who BioCentury chose not to identify said that Hahn ordered the switch, which the FDA defended to Dan Diamond as a way to get “maximum exposure.” In an additional wrinkle, as BioCentury editor Paul Bonanos pointed out, this also means Hahn can read Gottlieb’s past direct messages on Twitter. BioCentury’s description of the correspondence of an FDA commissioner using an official government account as private, however, is dubious.]

But let’s be clear: keeping and publishing a spreadsheet of the text of tweets on a website falls short of the standards the public should reasonably expect from government agencies on 2019.

They have an affirmative obligation to preserve these digital records, ideally in the interactive formats and context they were created in.

As Diamond highlighted in in Politico Pulse, the FDA’s decision is a departure from established practice: the Department of Health and Human Services  “historically has frozen the Twitter accounts of former top officials — like former Secretaries Kathleen Sebelius, Sylvia Mathews Burwell and Tom Price — and started new accounts for officials like HHS Secretary Alex Azar and CMS chief Seema Verma.”

This practice is reflective of the approach developed across the federal government over the past decade, continuing into this new administration.

In its digital transition, the Obama administration showed how memorializing official accounts (like @OpenGov44) could not only preserve a public record but their context, including the interactions with other accounts or rich media.

Modern tweets have far more than just 140 characters of text. Beyond doubling that character count to 280, tweets now include media, from embedded video to livestreams and GIFs, along with associated meta-data.

A spreadsheet of text and timestamps is a much better record than nothing at all, but imagine how the value of an email archive diminished if it is shorn of its attachments or the email addresses of the correspondents.

Part of the public interest value of preservation lies with the context of the communication, with respect to the other accounts a public servant interacts with, and the attribution of information passed along.

Deleting Gottlieb’s account removes that possibility and breaks the link to every interaction he had on Twitter, for no discernible public interest.

The removal is unfortunately emblematic of an administration that’s gone back in time online to when social media was used to broadcast statements, instead of governing with the people officials serve.

Looking ahead to 2020

The tone for how the Trump administration would treat public records on social media was set at the very beginning, when it deleted the Presidential Transition accounts.

The unannounced removal of federal data, documents and webpages since January 2017 has created public concern, doubt and confusion about public access to public data, undermining the US government’s stated mission to manage information as a strategic resource.

A coalition of public interest organizations has been asking agencies to give the public notice before they remove information from federal websites, with limited effect.

NARA has still not updated its outdated 2005 guidance on Web governance to make it clear that blog posts and social media are public records, and therefore must be preserved and subject to public records requests.

The fact that there’s still no universal adherence to a set of standardized practices for archiving and transitioning official social media accounts in 2019 or a national digital archive is negligent at the end of 2019.

Every agency will be eventually faced with archiving the account of former officials in 2020 and the years ahead.

Deleting the accounts of tweets of officials and transition accounts is not how the US government should approach this set of obligations.

Instead, there should be an explicit national strategy to archive all of these records for posterity, with clear expectations for agency personnel to do so.

Congress and federal agencies should be collaborating with the public to improve the standards and practices for the preservation of the digital public records officials generate on social media, whether they are appointed, elected, or hired. Agencies should be in ongoing contact with National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) staff about how they’re archiving content from official social media accounts.

After agencies designate official accounts, the accounts can be passed from one Cabinet Secretary, agency director or official to another with a change in name – but the updates made by former officials should stay up on the platform. Control and campaign accounts should stay with the individual, although memorializing updates related to public business and official acts is crucial.

In 2020, Congress should consider creating an ongoing, public archive of all federal government social media accounts across all three branches of government under the joint administration of NARA and the Library of Congress. This archive could be eventually be expanded to include states and cities, where the need for digital preservation is acute but there is only a fraction of the resources.

Other democracies have already stepped up to this problem and are working towards archiving the public communications of their public officials, across branches: The National Archives of Norway has been building an archive for the social media accounts of Norwegian politicians, parties and ministries.

The United States should be setting a global standard for public access, not defending deletions from the public record.

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