On July 27, the US Office of Special Counsel published a document with Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Social Media and the Hatch Act. The Hatch Act of 1939 is a US federal law preventing federal employees from engaging in partisan political activities.
The FAQ looks at how to comply with the act when engaging on social media, with particular reference, but not limited, to Facebook and Twitter.
The basic advice is that if a federal employee accesses social media from a federal workplace and during working hours, while on duty, then the provisions of the act would apply. Although there are several such references, I am picking one that I find particularly interesting
… federal employees must not post comments or opinions on Facebook that advocate for or against a political party, partisan political group, or candidate for partisan public office, while they are on duty or in the federal workplace. They may, however, do so after duty hours and in another location
This statement beautifully illustrates one of the ironies of social media. How would a reader know where the federal employee was, and at what time of the day that employee posted, and why should he or she even care? Does the physical location and the fact of being on duty make any real difference on how people may perceive an employee to be breaching the act?
Place and time are irrelevant on social media. The fact that a comment carries a time tag showing that the employee was off duty could satisfy the legal requirement (maybe), but won’t change the impression that the employee has indeed engaged, in his or her professional capacity, in partisan political activity.
The blurring of personal and professional roles and profiles on social media is unavoidable. Creating artificial boundaries, like this FAQ and many other social media policy documents try to do, will not stand the test of time. Policies and strategies should start from the recognition that there are no boundaries any more.