Argyll and Bute Council should come clean over online "spy accounts"

12 February 2012

School dinner blogs? You’re looking for this.

Argyll and Bute Council - 'Spy' social media accounts

Did Argyll and Bute Council set up “spy accounts” under false names on social media sites to monitor local activist groups? The question has been raised after this story in The Herald reported that one delegate at a local government communications conference claimed that Argyll and Bute’s communications manager made that claim during her conference presentation.

But there is a signficant lack of clarity over what has actually happened. Until the facts are established, debating the ethical implications of a particular course of action is premature.

Three explanations of Argyll and Bute’s activities have been given by various people and the truth may be something else entirely.

  1. According to an unnamed source in the Herald’s story, the council used bogus accounts to directly monitor critics and opponents:

[T]here was a sense of shock in the room when [the communications manager] described how she set up fake accounts on Facebook and Twitter to spy on people and groups who oppose the council.

From a professional public relations point of view, it is really poor behaviour. You may not like what taxpayers are saying about you online, but you can’t pretend to be one of them in order to find out what they are saying.

Other professional communicators in the room were very uncomfortable about it – not only is it unethical, it was a strange thing to tell other people about.

  1. In the same Herald story, Gary McGrow of the Scottish Health Council, who also attended the conference, suggests that the purpose of the activity was to learn more about how people communicate and organise online but not directly to collect specific information about opponents' activities:

I did ask whether this was ethical, but I don’t think it was being used for those purposes. It was being called a spy account, but what it really is is a dummy account.

A lot of public-sector organisations are struggling with the use of social media. What she was trying to do was find out how other people were using it, as a project, with a name not linked to the council. I don’t have any concerns about it now.

  1. Nick Hill of the Public Sector Web Network, who organised the conference, advances a third explanation: There was no activity by the council to set up accounts under false names but the council collected information from its own staff who were already using social media personally in an informal and voluntary way. Mr Hill does not report whether the aim of this activity was to gain greater understanding of social media in general or to collect specific information about local residents' groups.

The phrase ‘spy accounts’ was featured in the presentation in speech marks deliberately as they referred informally to individuals  referring back what they’d seen elsewhere voluntarily rather than some dastardly plot. The phrase was given deliberate context in the conference.

Argyll and Bute Council has issued a general denial of any covert activity in the Herald story without specifying precisely what it has done and why:

Argyll and Bute Council does not use and does not condone the use of covert social media accounts. The council does use social media as a valuable way to engage with communities.

Argyll and Bute Council needs to act immediately to clarify this situation. Without the full facts of their activities it is impossible to make a judgement about whether the council has acted ethically and whether any changes of policy or practice need to be made.

We need to know:

It’s certainly possible that Argyll and Bute’s activities online are entirely above board and defensible. Thus far all we have is conflicting claims and a lack of substantial facts. Let’s get the full story and have a much needed discussion about ethical social media behaviour in light of it.

UPDATE at 14:34 on 12 Feb 2012:

This story in the Herald, which I hadn’t seen when I wrote the post above, gives the communications manager’s own explanation of the “spy accounts”. Jo Smith says:

It was about trying to create a separate account different from your normal one that you have holiday photographs on. ‘Spy account’ was shorthand for it being another identity, to take you into a place that you wouldn’t be comfortable using your main account. I’m sure people do this all the time.

My online activity in my private life is private. You separate the professional from the personal and keep those two things separate. That is why many people post and say ‘this isn’t my employers’ opinion'. There are no rules here.

According to the Herald, Ms Smith did not want to discuss which groups she had accessed using these accounts. It is also unclear what information was collected through this activity, how it was used, and whether it was known to her colleagues and employer.