How Should Municipalities Approach Archiving Social Media Content?

Kevin Howarth

Friday, September 9th, 2022

Does this sound familiar? You open your inbox and see a message from a vendor offering to archive your municipality’s social media content–for a price. If you’ve been getting multiple messages from different social media archiving vendors, you’re not alone. We’ve heard from several municipalities with concerns about records management for their social media accounts, and we wanted to help shed some light on the subject.

City clerks are the record keepers of their municipalities, but what does that mean for social media content? Are you responsible for maintaining an archive of every post created by your municipality? We’ve put together some information to help you navigate these questions and make better-informed decisions about your social media archiving practices.

Pros and Cons of Social Media Archiving
Social media archiving enhances ease of access for Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. If your municipality doesn’t have an archive of social media content, it may be difficult or impossible to comply with FOIA requests related to this content. This is especially true if a post has since been deleted or the platform upon which it was published doesn’t archive content.

However, social media archiving may also create redundant work. Because social media platforms are already publicly accessible, some municipalities may find social media archiving to be redundant and unnecessary. In an article for Government Technology, Seattle’s director of electronic communication, Sabra Schneider, pointed out that municipalities won’t often receive FOIA requests for social media content because that content is already available and accessible to the public without the hassle of submitting an information request. According to Schneider, “People who want to see the records, can. We haven’t had any requests for social media records since April 2013.”

Social Media Archiving Best Practices
Now, let’s discuss a few best practices for archiving your municipality’s social media content. You can capture and save social media posts as records through a few avenues, including but not limited to:

Creating local versions of websites by using a web crawler or other archiving application. A web crawler is software designed to identify and log materials on live websites. Think of it like taking periodic snapshots of your social media pages at given points in time. A couple of web crawler options include Wayback Machine and Archive-It.
Capturing social posts with a web-capture tool or exporting content with built-in tools available through some social media platforms. If you use a platform like Hootsuite to schedule social media posts, you likely have access to this type of tool. You can also use a third-party web capture tool that can take screenshots of specific content from your social media accounts, as well.
Pulling content with a platform-specific application programming interface (API): If you go this route, you’ll need to use an app designed to interface with your social media platform to pull content and save it to an archive locally or in the cloud. Using an API may require some technical help.
Capturing content using aggregators, RSS feeds, or manually copying content: Content aggregators and RSS feeds are designed to pull content together into one place. Many people use aggregator software and websites to centralize information about a specific subject, but they can also be used to pull together and archive the content from your municipality’s social media accounts. The other option is to assign an employee to manually copy and paste your social media content into a local archive.
Whether you decide to implement a social media archiving service or rely on other means to save and store your published social content, your municipality should find out if your state has protocols in place for retaining records of social media content.

As an example, Alabama social media records fall under Title 41, chapter 13 of the code of Alabama, defining public records as “all written, typed or printed books, papers, letters, documents and maps made or received in pursuance of law by the public officers of the state, counties, municipalities and other subdivisions of government in the transactions of public business.” Building on that, Title 36, chapter 12 gives all citizens the right to “inspect and take a copy of any public writing of this state.” The state code may not give specific instructions about how to archive social media content, but we can infer from this language that many social posts could be seen as public writings and therefore should be archived.

Even if your state does not have specific language and/or procedures in place for social media content, you can follow similar procedures to be sure that you are keeping complete public records.

In Conclusion: When Municipalities Should Archive Social Media Content
So, should you be archiving your social media content? The answer is likely yes. FOIA requests may not be common for social media content, but they are serious. If you don’t believe that any of your municipality’s social media posts or the comments associated with them qualify as public records, you can likely skip the social media archiving process. However, if you leverage social media to publish information about events, projects, and decisions that impact your residents, that information should likely be archived and available to the public following records retention schedules.

As you review your municipality’s current social media archiving policies and procedures, take a moment to determine whether you’re implementing the most cost- and time-efficient procedures possible. If your town or city does not have an established social media archiving procedure, or if you have questions about streamlining your archiving process, fill out the form below to reach out to us today.