While the power of social media builds, the reality is that some people must proceed cautiously during election season—especially federal employees using social media who are regulated by the Hatch Act.

A recent nine-page memo issued by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel recently outlined some specifics focusing on what constitutes “political activity” in the realm of Facebook and Twitter.

Can you “follow,” be a “fan” of, or “like” a political party for example? It all depends what kind of employee classification you have and, of course, what you post. Social Media and the Hatch Act can be tricky.

The Hatch Act of 1939 prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity. The law, created in a much simpler time in history, was initially known as An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities.

Some of the recent guidance makes clear sense such as – a federal employee is prohibited from writing a blog while on duty in a federal workplace. Other classes of employees are additionally restricted from posting any information “created by the party, partisan candidate, or partisan campaign,” since it would be tantamount to distributing politically partisan literature.

But there are odd exclusions and exemptions. While some federal workers can’t post comments or opinions for, or against, a political party while on duty, they can do so after hours and from a different location. So watch out for the errant federal worker who posts to Facebook while still sitting in the federal cubicle using the federal PC after 5 p.m.

Trickier still is the allowance for federal employees to use aliases to create Facebook pages or Twitter accounts to follow, fan, or like. But they can’t use the alias accounts or pages, again, during federal work hours.

There is also a requirement to adjust privacy settings so that followers or fans are hidden from others so there’s no appearance of taking an active part in partisan political campaigns.

More interesting is the desire to post and share favorite news articles about a federal agency official on an agency’s Facebook page. That answer is an absolute “no” if the official gave a speech at a political fundraiser or partisan rally. Official business is supposed to be politically neutral.

According to a recent survey by Market Connections of Chantilly, Va., only 4 percent of government workers utilize social media during their work day. Of 321 federal employees surveyed, 60 percent said they use social media at home or work, 36 percent said they were not using social media and 5 percent said they “don’t know what online social media is.”

The General Accounting Office has also identified two major challenges for federal agencies using social media.

Agencies are unsure how the Privacy Act of 1974, which provides certain protections to personally identifiable information, applies to information exchanged within social media particularly with regard to data collection of personal information by the agency and third-party providers of services.

Second, agencies are even more confused about records management and requirements of the Freedom of Information Act—not knowing whether or not information produced by Web 2.0 technologies constitutes federal records and if this information must be captured at regular intervals.

(The Office of Special Counsel is available for additional questions on social media for federal workers that apply to MySpace, LinkedIn, and more. Call 202-254-3650 for additional information.)

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