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The Government Has an Instagram Problem

Social media connects us to our officials, but much of what they say will be lost to history

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

There have always been stories left untold in Washington, but the ubiquity of social media is creating a new void in our collective memories. The digital records created by today’s politicians may go missing unless our institutions undergo a major update.

Here’s one example: Younger politicians, like congress members-elect Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, often connect with their constituents through Instagram Stories. But the updates they share become inaccessible to the public after 24 hours, unless a “Highlights” feature to save them is toggled on. As new members of Congress come to the Capitol, the ways they tell their own stories using the platforms of the present is creating newfound urgency around archiving the historical record for the future.

I am not a neutral party in this debate. As the deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, I called for technology companies to create and publish political advertising files online, and worked with congressional legislators to draft the Honest Ads Act.

Over the past year, I have continued to watchdog the technology industry’s opaque self-regulatory efforts, calling attention to the void of advertising transparency at Amazon, Microsoft, Snapchat, and Oath.

The technology giants of today haven’t built or operated the giant social media platforms with the public’s interest in mind.

How politicians and governments use social media matters. We should expect them to do it better, with an eye toward civic engagement, transparency, accountability, and accessibility. And we should look to 21st century solutions to close the gap until official reforms are in place.

Until Congress, parliaments, and legislatures step up, technology companies that operate the public squares of our times should build and maintain a public interest file of the updates from politicians and governments on their services.

Memory holes in the digital landscape

Every time a social media platform becomes popular, savvy politicians and campaign consultants figure out how to reach people there. And every time that happens, these platforms, which were not designed for political or government activity in the first place, fail to build in disclosure and archiving features. Such features would enable the transparency and accountability that modern democracies need.

In 2018, the public has a reasonable expectation of access to the speech of officials, candidates, and public records that goes far beyond the letters, laws, treaties, declarations, and printed pamphlets of the last millennium.

But campaign communications, official statements from members of Congress, court records, and agency documents all have different expectations around preservation, access, or retention.

The Law Library of Congress maintains as the nation’s repository of legislative information. Then, there’s the presidency, which is governed by the Presidential Records Act. Public business conducted in the White House must be preserved, from the direct messages sent by the president’s Twitter account to annotations on documents to the website, if not the web apps embedded in it. Federal agencies must comply with the Federal Records Act, as National Archives advised the public and agencies in February 2017.

Congress isn’t subject to either statute. Instead, another arrangement has persisted into 2018 that has given politicians discretion about what’s preserved and how. Analog and digital documents generated by congressional committees as they conduct the public’s business are designated as official records and transferred to the Center for Legislative Archives in the National Archives and Records Administration for preservation.

United States House of Representatives and Senate rules, however, continue to treat the public records generated by members of Congress and their offices differently, leaving it up to the members of Congress, themselves.

As the Law Library noted in 2015, “Members maintain ownership of records created in the course of their congressional service, are responsible for effectively managing them, and determine the ultimate disposition of these papers. Members’ papers comprise both textual and electronic records and include things like personal notes, legislative research files, photos and correspondence with constituents.”

In 2018, these “papers” now often include Facebook Live and Messenger, Instagram Stories and Snapchat, along with Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube — but you won’t find them in the Library of Congress’ Archive of Congressional Websites.

In the absence of an explicit mandate for preservation and routines for preservation, the only archive of the activity that members of Congress and their staff leave behind exists in the backups maintained by the technology companies that operate social media platforms.

Unfortunately, the technology giants of today haven’t built or operated these giant platforms with the public’s interest in mind.

Why it’s time for a public interest file

At their best, the growing local networks of people, mobile devices, media, and public institutions form a new kind of monitory democracy, connecting people to information.

At their worst, we see the darker side of human nature reflected on our glowing screens as corporations, demagogues, and criminals prey upon our fears and trust. It’s in that context that we should ground our expectations for how our politicians and government staff use new technologies to campaign in government.

“It seems innocuous right now because they’re posting interesting selfie videos of cooking meals and attending orientation,” tweeted An Xiao Mina, a technologist who leads the product team at Meedan, “but what happens when they start making official policy pronouncements?”

“What happens when, either in the U.S. or elsewhere, we see the first authoritarian cult of personality built on IG stories and other ephemeral media?”

Mina, the author of the forthcoming book From Memes to Movements, told me that we need to hold public figures accountable for their online actions and promises on ephemeral media, and invest in cultural archives and preservation.

“What happens when, either in the U.S. or elsewhere, we see the first authoritarian cult of personality built on IG stories and other ephemeral media?” Mina said. “The archives will likely be lost to history, despite being critically important to understanding.”

Archiving is, of course, tricky, because we’re generating more information than ever. We’ve never had the expectation that every conversation someone has should be recorded and memorialized in history. Figuring out how public records laws can or should relate to instant messages, Slack updates, texts, and other media yet to be created will be the work of many years for regulators and legislators everywhere.

The answer can’t be to exempt email or text messages from the reach of public records laws, nor can it be to record everything, as in dystopic fiction like The Circle. Instead, we might reflect upon what the responsibility of elected officials and civil servants is to show their work, much as we might ask scientists or journalists reporting on data to share their methodologies and results.

“The dynamics of ephemeral media raise new questions that are critical to ask now, because we’re only going to see more of this in the future as political communications adapts to the attention economy and the new affordances of digital media,” Mina said.

Although the extraordinary work of historians and archivists to preserve digital artifacts is on display in museums and universities around the country, from the Library of Congress’ Election Web Archive to UCLA, they aren’t capturing everything. Even the Internet Archives’ marvelous Wayback Machine isn’t future-proofed, due to the emergence of ephemeral content, apps, messaging, and personalized advertising on social media.

Still, some specific solutions have arisen. Politwoops, for instance, preserves the deleted tweets of politicians, even though the laws of many countries do not require them to be saved. While we should praise and support the nonprofits like Open State Foundation and ProPublica that preserve deleted tweets, their efforts face genuine sustainability challenges.

One way to address this reality, without relying on nonprofits, is for technology companies themselves to create public, machine-readable archives of all of the public updates that campaigns, officials, and government agencies send on their platforms.

As with the Honest Ads Act, it may be necessary for legislators to rewrite and reform our laws in ways that create explicit expectations for private companies that host political speech and government content to preserve it.

There’s a recent precedent for this approach: In the wake of the Russian influence campaigns on social media in the 2016 presidential election, Facebook, Google, and Twitter all created different versions of this kind of public file for paid ads, with varying degrees of transparency.

The same model is relevant to tweets, Facebook updates, Instagram Stories, snaps, or other media from politicians that didn’t involve a payment.

Ocasio-Cortez did not respond to my requests for an interview on her use of social media. Facebook, which owns Instagram, also did not respond to my repeated efforts to answer questions for this post. That’s unfortunate, because there’s a productive discussion to be had about the obligations that tech companies have to uphold the public interest, beyond those directed by a profit motive and their investors.

That sort of reflection, stakeholder engagement, and self-regulation would be a welcome shift from the tech industry’s approach so far, which has unfortunately featured lobbying against existing regulations for disclaimers and disclosures being applied to electioneering online. The result has been to enable dark money to move over to dark social media without accountability or attribution, posing a huge and growing problem for our democracy and that of other polities around the world.

As with the Honest Ads Act, it may be necessary for legislators to rewrite and reform our laws in ways that create explicit expectations for private companies that host political speech and government content to preserve it.

Of course, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that social media platforms have already created valuable ways for people to engage politically. The civic features that Facebook has added in recent years are extraordinary, connecting us to our local governments and representatives, and enabling virtual, distributed town halls with the tap of a dialog button. What should be accompanying these new digital expressions of our political process, however, is a clear expectation of preservation and access to public statements by politicians.

Technology companies should be working with governments to preserve the record by educating elected leaders about how to improve public trust through transparency and accountability — not just how to pay them to use targeted advertising to gain or retain power.

The default should be set to preservation, not expiration.

Dad, writer, citizen, chef, cyclist, skeptical optimist, cereal dilettante. Open government advocate at

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