Balancing social media and federal law is as tricky as mastering TheAtlantic.com's new styleguide, which is one reason why many technologists hope that Congress adopts tech-neutral laws that allow room for experimentation.
The State Department has been among the most aggressive experimenters, directly linking social media engagement with its diplomatic efforts. Virtually every major speech Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers is buttressed by a small army of online diplomats who want to make sure that as many people as possible hear her speech and State's spin on it. When President Obama delivered his speech in Cairo, the State Department organized online townhall meetings in dozens of countries. It has advised other governments on best practices, and, during the first quakings of the Iranian revolution, asked Twitter to delay an upgrade in order to allow Iranians to Tweet. (Whether this was a good idea is still being debated.) The Department has reinvigorated its DipNote blog and maintains presences on media platforms across the cyberworld.
The Facebook page maintained by the Department of State includes on its fan pages links to two political pages: Barack Obama's page, maintained by the Democratic National Committee, and Joe Biden's page, set up by his now-defunct political committee.
You can access these pages through, say, the Department's page for the Kabul embassy. It is the 21st century equivalent of putting up Obama for America yardsigns on the lawn of a U.S. embassy. Now -- this is a tiny and inconsequential violation of the rules, but it does seem to break the Hatch Act, which prohibits government from promoting political entities. A link to Obama's White House would be acceptable. The State Department is still figuring out its best practices when it comes to social media, but there are some bright lines, and this is one of them. National security resources, in particular, cannot be used in any way for political purposes, even inadvertently, as is the case here. Clarifying what's permissible and what isn't is important across the government, but State plays a special role, and one assumes that it ought to be held to a higher standard.
BTW: I can see the conspiracy headlines now on a certain cable network: STATE PROMOTING OBAMA'S POLITICAL FORTUNES. That'd be a malicious interpretation of what is most likely an unintentional error.
When I brought this to the attention of the State Department today, a spokesperson acknowledged the concern and said that the links to Biden's and Obama's campaign sites would be removed.
"Those pages were added right after the new administration began and even before the new White House was represented online," an official said via e-mail. "The intention was to merely make certain that the U.S. President and Vice-President were recognized, not any political affiliation. Now that we 'favorite' the White House page, we'll remove the pages you mentioned."
Marc Ambinder is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.