Freedom to Tweet: Grading Social Media Policies in the Federal Government

March 14, 2013 | 11:59 pm
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

Social media can transform debates, inform discussions and, as we saw with the Arab spring, help spread democracy. And information and science have a key role to play in democracy (hence the new Center for Science and Democracy here at UCS). Scientists working for government agencies such as NASA, NOAA, the EPA, and the FDA have a lot to contribute to discussions about the science-based challenges we face. Unfortunately, agency policies combined with a culture of timidity are often constraining individual government scientists from jumping into social media.

While there are some notable exceptions (the Occupational Health and Safety Administration actually cancelled its Twitter account), many agencies themselves are embracing new ways of communicating. NASA has 3.7 million Twitter followers, and millions watched the Mars Rover landing via Ustream. The U.S. Geological Survey uses Twitter to send earthquake alerts. NASA had a Google+ Hangout with astronauts aboard the International Space Station. The CDC used zombies to highlight the importance of disaster preparedness in a viral novella. NIH allows employees to use social media to recruit medical study participants. Departing State Department tech visionary Alec Ross recently said that State reaches 15 million people daily in 11 languages through its 200 Twitter accounts. This is great stuff.

Screenshot from NASA Google Hangout

On February 22, NASA held a Google Hangout with astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Some federal agencies have embraced social media, but individual government scientists have held back, partially due to a lack of guidance. See our media policy scorecard at

For individual scientists who work for government agencies, however, it’s an entirely different story.

It’s easy to find academic scientists with significant Twitter followings. Scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson are ambassadors for science and bring significant attention to their home institutions, too.

Yet it’s considerably more difficult to find government scientists who list their agency affiliations and tweet freely. In general, they have been considerably more reticent to wade into the social media world.

We wondered why. So we graded the social media policies at federal government agencies and departments (we also analyzed agencies’ traditional media policies, as a follow up to a 2008 UCS report). We focused on the ability of scientists to communicate their expertise with the public. We looked for the following characteristics:

  • Clarity and consistency: Is the policy publicly available? Does it specify to whom the policy applies and in what venues?
  • Protection of free speech rights: Does the policy distinguish between the rights of a scientist in a personal capacity vs. his or her official capacity, and guarantee the right of scientists to express personal views in a personal capacity?
  • Tone: Does the policy include language that promotes openness?
  • Correction of errors: Does the policy allow scientists to correct inadvertent scientific errors in official agency social media posts?
  • Consideration of risk: Does the policy identify the inherent risks associated with engaging the public through social media?

We found significant variance, suggesting that while some agencies have a long way to go, others have proven that agencies can guide their employees on social media without infringing on their free speech rights.

Some federal agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, USGS, and the EPA, have developed social media policies that adequately guide their employees on social media use. Other agencies, such as the USDA, have overly restrictive policies that discourage communication and prohibit employees from providing an agency affiliation on social media platforms.

Other agencies, such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the FDA, and the CDC don’t even have a policy at all. These agencies ignore the world of social media at their own risk. It behooves a federal agency to develop a social media policy, as much for its own sake as for the sake of its scientists.

Clearly, the agencies with poor or no social media policies should step up their game. And the continued reticence of scientists who work for agencies with good policies to use social media while listing their professional affiliation suggests that even these agencies need to be more proactive in encouraging their employees to communicate.

While social media does not yet drive a majority of news, it allows the public to be engaged, to be part of the discussion in a way that mere reports and announcements can never do. Federal scientists are uniquely positioned to engage in public policy discussions, as they often possess both technical knowledge and familiarity with government policies and practices that can inform their opinion on local, state, and national science policy issues. Communication barriers make it more difficult to show citizens the value of the federal science that they pay for.

Hearing directly from scientists can break down barriers between government agencies and the public. It makes subverting the science for political purposes that much harder by decentralizing communications and giving the public a better idea of the science being considered in policy decisions. Strong policies are the first line of defense against political interference in federal science.