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Archiving #SocialCongress

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The legislative branch of the federal government is a lot more “social” than it was just a few years ago. Unfortunately, much of this bold new era of transparent two-way communication between government and the governed is currently at risk of being lost to history from lack of an accessible social media archive.

Increased engagement fosters increased transparency

When the Obama administration took office in early 2009, politicians who embraced social media seemed downright cutting-edge. Almost six years later, social media has become a key tool, if not the key tool, for most members of Congress to communicate with supporters and constituents.

The result of this shift has arguably been the most publicly visible dialogue between a citizenry and its elected officials in the history of representative government.

Social media has given Americans an unprecedented level of direct access to their representatives. Congressional legislators can, in turn, see the public’s reaction to their positions and messages first hand, rather than filtered through a staffer or the comments section of a newspaper’s website. And everyone, including the traditional media, can monitor how—or whether—a legislator chooses to respond to both questions and criticism from people who may be in a position to vote for or against them the following November.

Records preservation procedures lagging behind

It may have lacked the same degree of transparency as social media, but traditional correspondence between members of Congress and the public was typically archived for posterity. Policy mandates intended to capture official records were satisfied, and legislators accumulated documentation of their efforts to directly address the needs of their constituents. That not only came in handy on the campaign trail, but also when congressmen and senators were curating their libraries with an eye toward preserving their historical legacies.

The inherently transient nature of social media means that most of this newest body of public correspondence is only being preserved on the internal backups of the social media providers themselves. Those backups, which are intended to ensure continuity of service rather than function as a historical web archive, are private property and are not generally made available to the public.

The members of Congress deserve praise for having embraced the era of social media as quickly and constructively as they have. A wide range of government agencies at the federal, state and local levels have already acknowledged the legal and cultural value of archiving social media content. For history’s sake, the Senate and House should follow suit.



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