Saturday, January 28, 2017

Personal Social Media and the Foreign Service

U.S. federal government employees are subject to certain rules on political activities, and Foreign Service personnel are no exception. These rules are based on the Hatch Act (a federal law that limits political activities of all federal employees) and 3 FAM 4123.3 (from the Foreign Affairs Manual, or official source of policy for Department of State staff). These rules are designed to help us stay apolitical and nonpartisan in our professional lives.

One of the biggest things to worry about in the digital age is whether certain social media activities could put employees in violation of the Hatch Act. Even a Facebook like can walk a fine line between acceptable and downright illegal. Below are a few examples of what isn't okay for a Foreign Service Officer to do on social media. I hope this will serve as a resource for applicants who want to better understand what they'd be signing up for in this job (and to perhaps reconsider some of the ways they're using social media in advance).

Nonpartisan content is not an issue here, aside from the fact that it's probably best to keep all of your social media pages relatively clean, respectful, and tasteful as a general rule for almost any profession.

Here are some of the big social media no-nos (some of which I certainly didn't know about beforehand):

  • Using your official title or position while doing anything political. Just don't do it. I recommend getting in the habit by not doing things like commenting, "As a Foreign Service applicant..."
  • Engaging with anything fundraising-related. The one exception to this is accepting invites to events, but do not promote or support fundraisers on social media. This includes even such small actions as liking someone else's post or friending a fundraising page!
  • Engaging in any partisan activity on duty (including in a government building, on a government device, via an official account, etc.). Even an alias (e.g., tweeting from the handle "@DefinitelyNotForeignService") won't save you from this one.
  • Targeting partisan content to colleagues or other Department workers. Here's a case where sharing a story to all of your Facebook friends on your free time from a personal device in your own home might be okay, but you still can't share it specifically targeted to State Department employees with whom you're connected on social media.

Let me know if there are any cases or good examples that should be added to the above list. I hope some of those are illuminating.

For more information about permitted and forbidden activities online and elsewhere, please see this handy guide from AFSA (the American Foreign Service Association) here.

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