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Library Ethics and Social Media

by on March 20, 2017

The Jefferson County Public Library (CO) recently came under fire for allegedly posting politically-sensitive tweets on the library’s Twitter account. The incident, as reported by The Denver Post, is an illustrative example for all libraries who use social media. When Commissioner Don Rosier received a complaint from a library patron concerning the tweets, he contacted Pam Nissler, the library’s executive director. Nissler agreed with Rosier and the angry patron, and had the tweets deleted.  As Nissler pointed out, it was not the text of the tweets that was controversial, but the pictures posted with the tweets.[1] For example, one tweet included a picture of former democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, , and another included a picture of former president Barack Obama and his daughters. Rosier evaluated the tweets and concluded there was bias in the postings. Nissler commented the postings were in violation because they did not provide a neutral viewpoint, via the perceived political slant that the pictures provided.[2]

James LaRue, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom weighed in on this issue, stating he, “…did not find anything objectionable to them.”[3] He said the tweets were only reflecting current societal topics and did not push a certain political view. LaRue said this is the first time the Office for Intellectual Freedom has come across libraries scrubbing tweets due to patron complaints.[4]

Here is the text and picture description for two tweets:

  • Picture of Hillary Clinton with the words ‘I Believe in Science’: “We believe in #science too! That’s why we’re partnering with @coschoolofmines for a Girls in STEM Competition.”
  • Pictorial collage of medical terms relating to reproduction: “Want more information on women’s healthcare reform? Here’s 9 books that will take you beyond the headlines.”

First, before we start analyzing whether the library’s removal of tweets was ethical, we must remember a fundamental fact: libraries are neutral places and must not be biased in any way, blatant or perceived. Biases include all things religious, political, age related, content related, gender related, and racial. Perception of bias is the key. There does not have to be a bias actually there, only the perception of one.

If we look at the tweets in question, a simple solution to the library’s problem is obvious: remove/change the pictures accompanying the text of the tweets. Tweeting about science and a partnership for STEM is not politically biased; but the picture of Hillary Clinton is. The photo of Clinton should be removed and replaced with something else. The tweet about women’s healthcare reform and the graphic itself are fine, in my opinion. Women’s healthcare reform is a current topic in today’s news. Is the topic debated in politics? Yes, but that does not mean that a tweet about library materials on the topic is a push for a certain political party. The text of the tweet is encouraging people to read books on the topic in order to go “beyond the headlines.”[5]

The decision to remove the tweets was perhaps rash. They could have been removed and then reposted with other graphics (if the graphic did indeed need replacing), seeing that for the most part, the text is unbiased. The library community needs to mull over ethics for social media and come up with a game plan for future similar incidents. For more information, ALA has a webpage concerning social media and ethics that librarians can refer to.

References

[1] Aguilar, J. (2017, February 23). Jeffco library scrubs tweets after getting complaints that posts are politically biased. The Denver Post. Retrieved from http://www.denverpost.com/2017/02/23/jeffco-library-tweets-county-commissioner/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

 


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