Social Media Use in Public Safety Administration

Ethical Dilemmas in Social Media Use in Public Safety Administration

Today, public safety administrators at all levels are routinely confronted with complex ethical dilemmas that demand more than a casual analysis and response. Moreover, the types of ethical dilemmas that confront many public safety administrators at present have expanded to include issues that did not even exist a few years ago, most especially those involving the use of social media platforms. The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of these types of ethical issues that may confront public safety administrators, suggested training in response to these trends and the identification of relevant stakeholders. In addition, the paper provides an implementation plan and process followed by a draft code of ethics to help guide public safety practitioners. Finally, a summary of the research and key findings concerning the ethical dilemmas involved in social media use in public safety administration are presented in the papers conclusion.

Review and Analysis

Although the following review and analysis of the issues involved in social media use in public safety administrative is not exhaustive, it does represent some of the more salient problems that practitioners are likely to encounter when confronted with ethical dilemmas caused by the proliferation of social media platforms. In fact, that are a wide array of factors that must be taken into account when the public disclosure of private information are involved. Citizens of the United States have a fundamental constitutional right to privacy, as well as other legal protections, and growing numbers of Americans are concerned about increased violations of their privacy from the government, businesses and even private individuals who do not have a right to their personal information.

The rapid growth of these platforms has made it increasingly difficult for public safety practitioners to formulate timely and informed guidelines for their use. In this regard, Sheer (2015) emphasizes that, The popularity of a new platform may spread overnight. So it may be difficult for administrators to keep up with the latest social media app, but it is imperative to understand a number of legal issues that apply to social media in general (p. 7). This advice is timely and relevant to public safety administration, of course, but far too practitioners may not fully comprehend the legal issues that are applicable to social media platforms to private the basis for optimal social media use guidelines.

At present, a majority of the states do not have legal requirements in place for government authorities to develop guidelines for social media use, but a growing number have determined that there is a need for such guidelines and efforts are underway to draft and implement policies that are congruent with certain principles, including the protection of privacy rights (Sheer, 2015). Notwithstanding this growing recognition, however, there remains a profound lack of universally applicable guidelines that are most appropriate for each state and community (Sheer, 2015).

Nevertheless, there is a continuing need for some type of overarching guidelines concerning social media use by public safety administrators to avoid violations of privacy rights. For instance, Sheer (2015) also notes that, State law and community standards differ around the country, so what may be acceptable in one jurisdiction may not work in another (2015, p. 8). It is important to point out, though, that in their efforts to develop and implement effective guidelines concerning social media use that public safety administrators also take into account the constitutional right to free speech, violations of which will also have significant implications for government authorities. As Sheer (2015) concludes, While different communities may have different philosophies on acceptable social media usage, districts must remember not to implement an overly restrictive policy that creates unintended legal liabilities (p. 9). In essence, this observation represents a significant ethical dilemma for public safety administrators who want to ensure that stakeholders legal Fourth Amendment rights to privacy are protected while ensuring that their First Amendment right to free speech is also protected in view of prevailing community standards.

Developing and implementing appropriate standards and guidelines for social media use therefore requires an examination and understanding of the other types of violations that may result in unintended outcomes, including legal actions by individual citizens and advocacy groups (Nye, 2011). Consequently, the failure on the part of public safety administrators to confront this ethical dilemma head-also has serious civil and even criminal implications involved. As Nye (2011) points out: Violating the rules of professional conduct is a deviation from the standard of care, and persons and entities who feel themselves injured/damaged by reason thereof may resort to civil lawsuits for money damages and injunctive relief, as well as prosecution of criminal complaints (p. 15).

In other words, malfeasance on the part of public safety administrators to carefully weigh the relative importance of all of the legal issues, stakeholders involved and prevailing community standards and formulate effective guidelines for social media use is clearly tantamount to violating the rules of professional conduct. In the past, these types of failures were not associated with guidelines involving online practices, but the explosive growth in social media platforms has focused increased attention on these needs. Moreover, Nye (2011) stresses that, Online deviation of a practice standard is as serious a deviation as in any other context (p. 16).

Considering prevailing community standards and responding to the foregoing ethical dilemma will also require taking into account the unique aspects of Fourth Amendment rights when online postings and social media platforms are involved, including the private right to privacy. For example, Nye (2011) emphasizes that:

Except by due process of law, government cannot infringe on the individual’s rights to seclusion, control over his/her body, personal information, or control of children. The trend, however, is to consider any Internet posting of one’s private information as a waiver of the right of privacy with regard to the information publicly disclosed. (p. 15)

A concomitant of this trend towards regarding online postings of personal information as a waiver of the right to privacy is the need to take into account prevailing community standards concerning interpretations of the private right to privacy. In this regard, Nye (2011) reports that in contrast to the Fourth Amendment protections of privacy from the government at all levels, the private right of privacy is applicable to other people and commercial enterprises. The personal right to privacy affords Americans with the several privacy protections. In sum, American citizens have a right:

To be left alone (e.g., no photographing of one’s bedroom activities);

To seclusion (no butting into one’s private space);

Not to have one’s private information disclosed; and,

To control over their name and likeness (Nye, 2011).

Similar to Fourth Amendment privacy protections, individuals that post personal information in a social media platform are regarded as having waived their right to the private right to privacy, but it is important to note that the posting of another individuals personal information on these platforms is considered an actionable breach of privacy that can results in monetary damages being assigned (Nye, 2011).

Another type of privacy violation of this sort is the so-called false light invasion of privacy wherein personal information is disclosed to others that have no legitimate right to it that places the affected individuals in a false light in the eyes of the general public (Nye, 2011). These types of privacy violation are especially troubling for government authorities including public safety administrators since individuals using hacked social media accounts, anonymous postings and fake news in social media platforms are notoriously difficult to trace but the damage has already been done to the affected individuals.

Moreover, these trends and the above-described presumed waiver of the right to privacy when posting personal information online cannot be applied to children and adolescents in the same wholesale fashion as it is applied to adults since the former demographic groups are members of populations that are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and cyberbullying (Wright, 2018). Further, these vulnerable populations are among the heaviest users of social media platforms (Wright, 2018), thereby exacerbating the already complex ethical dilemma involved in formulating appropriate and effective social media use guidelines for public safety administration. Indeed, according to Wright (2018), The most recent statistics on adolescents’ social networking use indicate that about 71% of American adolescents between the ages of 13 and 17 use social media, making it one of the most popular online tools for this population (p. 113).

Here again, though, there is the need for public safety administrators to consider prevailing community standards concerning what are regarded as adequate protections for these vulnerable populations when developing guidelines for social media use. In this regard, DePaulis (2015) concludes that, Cyberbullying prevention and intervention strategies would benefit from an ecological perspective that looks beyond individual characteristics to consider peer, family, community, and societal contexts as well (p. 16). Taken together, the foregoing trends and laws combine to create a veritable Gordian knot of challenges, and the environment continues to change and evolve. Consequently, besides developing an appropriate code of ethics for social media use, public safety administrators must also recommend appropriate training for affected stakeholders and these issues are discussed further below.

Suggested training

At a minimum, training for public safety administration staff should include an overview of the foregoing legal protections of personal privacy and how they are affected when online postings of personal information on social media platforms are involved. In addition, an up to date code of ethics that can be used by staff members as a guide when confronted with ethical dilemmas should also be included in any training initiative. As noted above, however, the legal and technological landscapes continue to evolve in light of the increased use of social media, making the need to update training protocols on a regular basis paramount. In addition, it will also be important to identify affected stakeholders as an essential component of the training process as described below.

Identification of stakeholders

Besides public safety administration staff members and affiliated government agencies, the two other primary categories of stakeholders involved are adults, adolescents and children who are constituents of the jurisdiction involved. In addition, third parties such as vendors that do business with the jurisdiction and consumer advocacy groups may also be regarded as stakeholders depending on the jurisdiction.

Implementation plan and process

Given the severity of the legal fallout that can result from violations of personal privacy information, time is clearly of the essence when development and implementing the above-described training and there is no room for complacency in this enterprise. Therefore, in collaboration with the jurisdictions legal department, a code of ethics should be drafted (as discussed below) and circulated to public administration staff members for feedback and approval.

Following this step, the next phase of the implementation process will involve posting any jurisdiction-specific guidelines together with the code of ethics on any Web site maintained by the public safety administration, as well as being communicated to other affected stakeholders such as the third parties described above, including citizens privacy advocacy groups (Glaubinger, 2009).

It will also be important to encourage feedback from affected stakeholders and updating the guidelines and code of ethics as required to ensure they remain aligned with relevant laws and prevailing community standards. As a result, there is no real final step involved in the implementation process since it is an ongoing endeavor that requires continuous diligence and oversight.

Draft code of ethics

Although every public safety administrations needs are unique with respect to protecting the privacy of their stakeholders in social media platforms, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) provides some valuable general guidelines that can be used to draft an appropriate code of ethics that can be fine-tuned to the specific needs of the jurisdiction. Some of the more salient ethical guidelines provided by the NASW in this area include the following excerpts which have been modified for context:

Public safety administration staff members should avoid communication with clients using technology (such as social networking sites, online chat, e-mail, text messages, telephone, and video) for personal or non-work-related purposes.

Public safety administration staff members should be aware that posting personal information on professional Web sites or other media might cause harm to their constituents.

Public safety administration staff members should be aware that personal affiliations may increase the likelihood that others may discover their presence on Web sites, social media, and other forms of technology.

Public safety administration staff members should be aware that involvement in electronic communication with groups based on race, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, mental or physical ability, religion, immigration status, and other personal affiliations may affect their ability to work effectively with these constituents.

Public safety administration staff members should avoid accepting requests from or engaging in personal relationships with constituents on social networking sites or other electronic media to prevent harm to them.

Public safety administration staff members should respect constituents’ right to privacy and should not solicit private information from or about them except for compelling professional reasons. Once private information is shared, standards of confidentiality apply.

Public safety administration staff members should protect the confidentiality of all information obtained in the course of professional service, except for compelling professional reasons.

The general expectation that government officials, including public safety administration staff members, will keep information confidential does not apply when disclosure is necessary to prevent serious, foreseeable, and imminent harm to an individual or others.

In all instances, public administration staff members should disclose the least amount of confidential information necessary to achieve the desired purpose and only information that is directly relevant to the purpose for which the disclosure is made should be revealed.

Public safety administration staff members should not discuss confidential information, electronically or in person, in any setting unless privacy can be ensured.

Public safety administration staff members should take reasonable steps to protect the confidentiality of electronic communications, including information provided to individual constituents or third parties.

Public safety administration staff members should use applicable safeguards (such as encryption, firewalls, and passwords) when using electronic communications such as e-mail, online posts, online chat sessions, mobile communication, and text messages.

Public safety administration staff members should develop and disclose policies and procedures for notifying constituents of any breach of confidential information in a timely manner.

Finally, in the event of unauthorized access to records or information, including any unauthorized access to electronic communication or storage systems, public safety administration staff members should inform constituents of such disclosures, consistent with applicable laws and professional standards (adapted from the NASW code of ethics, 2017).


The ethical dilemmas that routinely confront public safety administrators have been amplified and complicated by the use of social media platforms by stakeholders, including both public safety administration staff and their constituents. In sum, the goal of public safety administration practitioners to protect the public can be adversely affected when privacy violations occur. The research was consistent in showing that even the most well intentioned guidelines may be inadequate to protect them from serious civil actions and even criminal prosecutions if they fail to ensure that adequate legal and ethical protections are in place. Moreover, the research was also consistent in showing that the legal and ethical landscape is dynamic, making the need for continuous diligence to identify relevant changes in this landscape absolutely essential. The suggested training and draft code of ethics set forth above represent a useful starting point for this purpose.




Code of ethics. (2017). National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from

DePaulis, K. (2015, Spring). Cyberbullying: Implications for social work assessment. School Social Work Journal, 39(2), 15-20.

Glaubinger, C. (2009, September 5). Examples database: Citizen participation. Nation’s Cities Weekly, 28(36), 5.

Nye, S. G. (2011, July). Law and ethics: Social media issues. The Journal of Employee Assistance, 41(3), 14-19.

Sheer, B. (2015, January-February). Five ways to keep social media from being a legal headache. T H E Journal 42(1), 6-9.

Wright, M. (2018, January 1). Cyberbullying: Victimization through social networking sites and adjustment difficulties: The role of parental mediation. Journal of the Association for Information Systems, 19(2), 113-119.


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