The FDA Released a Long-Awaited Social Media Policy—and It’s Impressive

November 13, 2015 | 3:44 pm
Gretchen Goldman
Former Contributor

Earlier this year, I looked at the social media policies of 17 federal agencies and departments with science in their missions. All but one of those agencies had a social media policy in place. So we asked the lone agency—the Food and Drug Administration—to produce the social media policy it claimed it was working on. This week the agency released that policy. And it’s not just any policy, it’s a strong one.

The FDA’s new social media policy, posted online today, earns an A, or 90 out of 100 points on the scale created for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Grading Government Transparency report. This puts the FDA near the top of the class in terms of policy quality. By comparison, other agencies ranged from a D to an A on this scale. Here’s what earned the FDA high marks.

The FDA provides scientists with the freedom to tweet

The FDA just unveiled its new social media policy, which provides guidance to their employees on use of social media for official and personal purposes.

The FDA just unveiled its new social media policy, which provides guidance to their employees on use of social media for official and personal purposes.

A substantial portion of points came from its distinction between official and personal use of social media, and notably, the freedom it gives to its employees on the latter.  Not all agencies’ policies made this important distinction in clarifying how their employees can use social media and only a few match or exceed the FDA policy’s excellent guidance on personal use of social media.

As I’ve detailed before, federal employees should be able to name their agency on their personal social media accounts.  The ability of scientists to express their personal views on matters related to their science is a fundamental tenet of scientific free speech. In a world where activities are increasingly online, this right should extend to social media platforms.

Government scientists who want to engage on social media platforms are sometimes at a disadvantage if they can’t mention their employer—a key component of their scientific credentials. It’s these scientific credentials that give scientists the ability to fully participate online, while sharing their expertise. As long as scientists have a disclaimer in their profile, it is clear that they are not speaking for their agency.

The FDA policy has just such language. The FDA policy states, “To use social media in his or her personal capacity, an employee does not need to obtain permission or approval…” and “an employee may include his or her title of position in an area of the social media account designated for biographical information.”  The policy also encourages use of a disclaimer if employees have concerns that use of social media may create the impression of agency views. Other agencies with strong language in this area are the Department of the Interior and the National Institutes Health social media policies

FDA provides their scientists with the right to corrections on social media

Another strong feature of the FDA social media policy is its provision outlining the right and procedure for scientists to get corrections for anything that relies on their science that’s incorrectly put out on social media (either by accident or intent). This is a provision that UCS first advocated in a 2013 report, as the social media-equivalent of scientists’ right of last review—that is, the right of scientists to review public communications that rely on their science. This pre-approval policy makes sense for press releases, reports and the like but isn’t practical for the fast-paced nature of social media. As a result, scientists should have a right to correction for anything sent out on social media with inaccuracies. Within hours of UCS issuing this recommendation, the U.S. Geological Survey revised their social media to include such a provision.

Now the FDA joins USGS as the only other agency with this important provision.  The FDA policy states that, “an agency employee can request that an agency social media communication be corrected, amended, or clarified if (1) the communication is based upon the research published work of the employee or purports to express the employees views by name or title; and (2) the communication is false, misleading or confusing.” The policy then goes on to outline the procedure an employee would take to obtain such a correction.

A solid policy for a science-based agency

To round out its strong policy, the FDA social media policy also specifies to whom the policy applies, which includes contractors, encourages its employees to use social media to promote the agencies’ mission and public health, and includes a comprehensive list of links to relevant policies and information from within the agency and across the government.  I commend the FDA for developing a strong social media policy. A policy of course needs to be fully implemented, and I look forward to seeing how the agency proceeds in putting this strong policy into practice.