In most cases, probably not.
We have all seen it. A public entity shares an update on social media and the comments start coming in. Often times, most of the comments are positive or are a community member looking for more information. However, every once in a while there are comments that in an ideal world, would not exist. They may not make sense. They may not be correct. Or they may not use appropriate language. But as an admin of a page, what can we do with them?
Freedom of Speech
Under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, government entities are prohibited from restricting the free speech of citizens, with limited exceptions. Whether the deletion of social media comments is a prohibited restriction is fact-specific. Relevant factors include the content of the comment, the reason for the deletion, and the type of forum the social media platform is considered. In many instances, it is likely that deleting public comments would be a First Amendment violation. In those scenarios, the person whose comments were deleted could bring a suit against the government entity seeking to have deleted comments made public and possibly seeking damages for the violation.
In addition, public comments may be protected by state open meeting statutes.
Hiding vs. Deleting Comments
Hiding comments is exactly what it sounds like. It hides it from the post, without technically deleting it. Other people will no longer be able to see the comment, but the person who commented will still see the comment on the post.
For a couple of reasons, we do not encourage hiding posts. Like deleting posts, it may violate free speech rights. Beyond that, when a comment is hidden, the person who commented can still reply to their post, and that will not be hidden. Because the original comment is hidden, the page will not be notified of the new comment. However, it will still show up on the post.
Deleting comments is removes the comment completely. This method is preferred when removing a comment from a post.
When Can We Delete a Comment?
Typically, most of the comments that appear on public entities can’t be deleted without raising potential First Amendment violations. Think of it like a council meeting. If someone stands up and shares negative feedback, can you ask for it to not be recorded? No, instead you take note of what they shared and thank them for their input.
When it comes to social media there are cases, where deleting comments is okay. However, this does not happen frequently. This includes
- Threats — Threats of personal harm or other threats that create an unsafe atmosphere.
- Defamation — Defamation as it pertains to the legal description of defamation.
- Malware — Any link or application that is a security risk.
- Obscenity — Vulgar or obscene comments may be tagged in social media applications and can be deleted depending on guidelines by the public entity.
How to Handle Difficult Comments
Each comment is unique. If possible, take the comment offline. Thank them for their input and offer up a call to further explain things and hear their concerns. If the information is just plain incorrect. Provide the correct information. If possible, share a direct link to your website that has the information. Depending on the comment, another option is to allow other commenters to correct them. If you move forward with this last option, make sure you are monitoring the responses so that the comment isn’t going unacknowledged or is getting undesired support.
Social Media Policies
In the end, all Facebook users must follow Facebook’s Community Standards, but it is important that your page expectations are also clarified in your social media policy. If you have not yet created a policy, this blog can be a great tool for getting started!