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Social Media Archiving Officials’ Unofficial Profiles

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Last fall, we called for members of Congress to begin using web archiving technology to preserve not only their official websites, but also their official social media presences.

“Official,” as it turns out, is an important descriptor, and its definition is subjective.

Sen. Rand Paul, as the National Journal reported earlier this month, has altered his “official” social media profile to avoid running afoul of Senate rules designed to ensure separation between the legislative activities of members of Congress and their campaign activities.

Sometime between Nov. 5, 2013, and Nov. 20, 2013, a link to Sen. Paul’s Twitter feed, @SenRandPaul, was removed from his official U.S. Senate website. The links to his official presences on Facebook, YouTube and Google+ remain intact.

In separating his Twitter feed from his official Senate website, Paul has given himself the option to use that Twitter feed as a campaign platform—a direct channel to the feed’s 539,000 followers. Rand Paul’s Twitter feed is his “official” Twitter feed in the sense that it is operated by him or his private, non-Congressional staff—and enjoys the coveted blue checkmark of official Twitter identity verification—but it is no longer his “official” feed as a member of the U.S. Senate.

Members of Congress may not use the taxpayer-funded resources available to their political offices to engage in campaign activity. The Senate ethics committee makes very clear what that means when it comes to websites, specifically prohibiting “any linkage on the Member’s official website to his or her (or any) campaign website. The Ethics Committee has advised that a Member’s principal campaign committee website should not include a link to his or her Senate office website.” While the committee doesn’t specifically mention social media, the National Journal story cites ethics experts who say that this prohibition would extend to linking from a politician’s official website to his or her personal or campaign-related Twitter feed.

It is likely, then, that any archiving services—including web archiving—available to members of Congress for their official use would not be permitted to capture any of that personal social media content for the same reason, even if much of it is directly related to affairs of government.

The importance of such archival collections to legislators’ historical legacies and to the public interest, however, makes the archiving of personal and campaign-related social media a growing issue. It will be interesting to see how many other members of Congress follow Paul’s lead and as their respective re-election campaigns approach. If many do, any social media archiving that takes place likely will be left to volunteer efforts, media organizations, the campaigns themselves—or their political opponents. Stay tuned.

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