Most of us would agree that transparency and disclosure represent important pillars of the best practices of digital advocacy. Political and issue campaigns ought not to deceive readers, viewers and listeners as to the nature of advocacy-oriented communications.
Historically, the Federal Election Commission and other government agencies have required “paid for by” disclaimers on advertising, brochures, and other forms of campaign communication. The Federal Trade Commission recently weighed in with new guidelines requiring disclosure of sponsored speech in the commercial arena.
Setting aside for the moment the obvious free speech concerns that these regulations raise, there are considerable practical implications that must be explored.
When Character Limits Get in the Way
The recent case of a candidate for mayor of St. Petersburg, Florida demonstrates the challenges that campaigns and regulators have in dealing with digital disclosure. The Florida Elections Commission fined Scott Wagman $250 and ordered him to stop running search ads because they lacked proper disclosure statements. The Associated Press aptly notes that this decision was rendered by the Commission “even though the required disclaimer was longer than the 68 characters allowed in the text of the ad, which wasn’t “paid for” until someone clicked on it.”
In other words, requiring disclosure on search engine ads would effectively remove it as a valid tool in the communications arsenal.
Twitter suffers from a similar challenge in that the limit on the number of characters allowed in a tweet make it impractical bordering on impossible to communicate a message and also include an appropriate disclaimer or disclosure.
Must Disclosure Be “In Your Face” Obvious?
But let’s assume that regulators decide to treat tweets and similar communications in a similar manner as campaign buttons or bumper stickers that may omit disclaimer language for practicality reasons. It still raises the question of how best to disclose a relationship with a campaign or organization on Twitter.
For instance, is making the disclosure on the Twitter profile sufficient transparency? Or should someone tweet their relationship to the campaign or organization on some regular basis in their actual message stream? How often do you look at someone’s profile to find out what their bias may be?
And what of consultants who may have many clients? That wouldn’t even fit in a typical Twitter profile so the best course of action might be a link to a disclosures page on a company or personal web site. But then that’s much harder for someone to find unless they are really researching an individual’s bias, so what does it really accomplish other than perhaps a bit of CYA?
The Breadth of Disclosure Requirements
Similarly, many consultants may be loathe to disclose all of their clients — or may actually be forbidden to do so by confidentiality clauses. Obviously, one should then refrain from commenting about the company and issue that one is contracted to work on. But that can pose problems if someone wants to comment on something else that the company may have an interest in, especially if the client involved is a large one with diverse products and issues. Where does one draw the line?
Personal Judgment is the Key
Ultimately, social media is built on the trust established by and between individuals. Each participant must therefore seek to avoid or disclose potential conflicts, but it is difficult to establish a hard and fast rule as to when and how this must be done. Like much of what is being done in social media today, we must rely on personal judgment. In addition, we all must understand that mistakes will be made but as in any business it is the customer service after such a situation — in the form of candid communication and improved practices going forward — that should be the key to how we judge.