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Using Social Media for Government Research

Government information is ubiquitous in social media platforms. Government agencies at every level (federal, state/province, country, city) share a significant amount of information and data on social media. Some agencies even have several different social media accounts where they disseminate different types of information depending on the nature of the institution or department. Elected officials speaking on behalf of the government or the public office they represent behave no differently. Some of these government officials and lawmakers have had multiple social media accounts, each for the previous elected positions they have occupied. It has become increasingly difficult to differentiate information shared when the government officials were running for office as candidates and the usage of social media accounts once elected into office and hence speaking on behalf of that public office.

These trends have been rapidly increasing over the past couple of decades, and the need for official virtual government communication during the pandemic has only exacerbated these latest developments. The government’s heavy usage of social media platforms reside on two major needs. First, the need to reach out to constituents in a rapid and cost-effective way. Secondly, the government wants to play an active role in the important “public discourse[1]” taking place on these platforms. These two factors broadly define the type of information the government decides to share on social media. Government agencies and elected officials tend to share official press releases and statements; new regulations, policies or statutes; calls for feedback, input or proposals; official events with pictures, etc. The ability to react to current events at such a rapid pace has allowed the government to share information which remains solely on these third-party platforms and therefore never makes it to the official government-owned websites or designated public archives. For further research, I highly recommend the seminal article, A Trend You Can’t Ignore: Social Media as Government Records and Its Impact on the Interpretation of the Law by Jessica De Perio Wittman published in October 2020 in the Albany Law Journal of Science and Technology.

The fact that the government and its representatives are using social media platforms to share an overwhelming amount of information, at times exclusive information, has a considerable impact on legal, government and any type of research. As legal researchers, we tend to rely and trust the information located in government websites as a source of both secondary and primary materials. Most of the legal vendors that we use so frequently also rely on government websites and official channels to feed their databases. However, what happens when there is an important amount of government information located on social media platforms? What happens when this piece of information never makes it to the official government websites? What happens when that is indeed the information you need for your legal research?

Use your own social media accounts to do research.

Most lawyers, law professors, legal researchers and the institutions they work for use their own social media accounts for promotional purposes only. This new reality we live in means that you’ll have to learn how to use your social media account as another tool when doing your legal research. Law firms are already familiar with using social media to gather evidence from individuals and/or companies and in their respective litigations. However, this type of government information is slightly different because we’re referring to public information which we expect to be easily accessible to most people and readily available to researchers in reliable public sources.

I’d highly encourage all legal researchers to begin following several government social media accounts on different platforms, depending on what public institutions you’re interested in. Following them closely on social media will allow you to remain on top of what type of information they’re sharing, when they’re sharing it and also whether they are re-sharing other content which can be construed as endorsements or support or even when they are commenting or responding to comments from other users. Conducting a search on social media platforms, even an advanced search is not an easy task, mostly because of the amount of data and access. In 2006, The U.S. Library of Congress attempted to collect tweets and organize them in a massive database for research purposes. The program was severely scaled back in 2017 due to the lack of resources and the need for selection/curation[2].

Private vendors appearing in the picture.

Private vendors are slowly understanding the importance of this type of information located in social media. Unlike the Library of Congress, private vendors do have the resources and expertise to conduct such a project in the scale and timeframe needed. However, crawling content located in another private website is not an easy and straightforward matter. Two important databases have become relevant with this type of content: VoxGov and ProQuest Congressional Government Social Media.

Both databases provide users with the ability to search terms, hashtags, specific handlers and also use the data for analysis and research. Some of the limitations in these databases include the coverage in terms of how far back you can go to find social media posts. At the time of writing this post, you could do a search going back only to the early 2010s on either database. Another major issue with these databases is the ability to search for deleted or removed content. If a government agency or elected official decides to delete something they had previously shared or the platform itself decides to remove the content, the data does not make it into the databases.

These are the two private databases I am familiar with. If you know of others, please drop them in the comments section.

Removed or deleted government information.

As I have eluded before, any content on social media platforms is incredibly tenuous and temporary by nature. As a law librarian and an assiduous legal researcher, this is one of the major problems I see when important government information finds itself solely on these platforms. What a lot of people tend to forget is that social media platforms are private third-party vendors which do not have preservation of public information as one of their company goals. Therefore, the task and hard work of preservation and archiving and ultimately access and use for legal research sometimes fall on external institutions.

The inaccessibility of any type of government information on social platforms becomes a major problem when this content is removed or deleted for whatever reasons. Having that in mind, the US National Archives has done incredible work at capturing and preserving numerous presidential social media accounts both from the previous Obama and Trump administrations. For legal researchers, the ability to access and use this government information has been significant and relevant to their work. However, this has proven not to be enough considering Trump’s controversial and at times deleted or removed tweets. For those of you interested in searching all of Trump tweets, there is also the Trump Twitter Archive.

The Internet Archive has also contributed to this conversation with its Archive-It service. Here you can find collections in particular topics, public and private institutions archiving and making public information available and much more. This is an incredibly powerful source of information for both current and future researchers.

The trend of government agencies and elected public officials sharing government information and heavily using social media is only going to further increase in the coming decades. More importantly, the amount of government information solely located in social media platforms will also increase. Legal researchers need to learn how to incorporate social media platforms as tools in their research strategies, especially for those pursuing government or legislative research. This is a conversation to be continued.

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[1] Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University v. Trump, No. 18-1691 (2d Cir. 2019).

[2] https://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2017/12/update-on-the-twitter-archive-at-the-library-of-congress-2/

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