Social media has become an important public space, where councillors share political information and engage with other councillors, officers and residents.
It has the potential to improve democracy by facilitating bigger, freer and more open conversations and by allowing representatives to communicate directly with citizens.
But social media also opens the door for online abuse, harassment and intimidation, along with the swift spread of misinformation and disinformation that can impact local democracy.
The LGA has published a guide for councillors as they continue to navigate this space. It discusses what digital citizenship is, provides practical advice from fellow councillors and officers, and identifies useful resources, tools, research and further reading.
Improving digital citizenship is a key element of the ‘Civility in public life’ work by the LGA, Welsh LGA, Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) and Northern Ireland LGA.
Digital citizenship is about engaging in appropriate and responsible behaviour when using technology, and encouraging others to do so as well. It encompasses digital literacy, ethics, etiquette, online safety, norms, rights, culture and more.
Developing digital citizenship requires us to improve online political communications. It is about expressing our opinions while respecting others’ rights and personas and avoiding putting them at risk or causing unnecessary distress.
It is about respecting freedom of speech and disagreement while condemning abuse.
The LGA’s guide provides practical advice and resources for councillors, while its partner publication, ‘Improving digital citizenship: research and good practice’, provides helpful background and research and looks at the good work going on in the UK and abroad to make a difference.
Advice and resources are based on the most recent research and best practice available, and on advice from councillors and officers themselves on what has worked.
For example, setting boundaries and expectations are important, as is ensuring accuracy.
Elected councillors and support officers frequently mention that members of the public have different opinions or understanding of what is and is not acceptable online behaviour. While some individuals engage in abusive behaviour intending to intimidate, some others simply fail to understand the impact of their behaviour.
This, of course, does not excuse any abuse, but can explain why it can be challenging for some people to recognise when they are being abusive.
Councillors suggest that having clear guidelines on what constitutes online harassment, abuse and intimidation will help to call out abuse and to implement consistent measures to tackle it.
It was noted that councillors are influential in their communities and that by communicating respectfully with others they can help to generate positive engagement between councillors and residents.
Similarly, support officers and councillors agree on the importance of ensuring that the information they share is accurate. For this purpose, they recommend using official press statements and avoiding ambiguity in information shared.
Councillors, as community leaders, should aim to lead by example, which includes avoiding the spread of unverified rumours, misinformation and disinformation as that would undermine the legitimacy of decision-making and cause problems within communities, such as in relation to public health or community safety.
Rumours about fellow councillors can also be very damaging for their reputation, safety and mental health.
The guidance presents some useful steps to follow to prevent sharing misinformation and disinformation and can also be applied to avoid the spread of rumours about councillors.