Key points

Australian Government agencies are increasingly using social media (or Web 2.0) tools to communicate and interact.

Records of value may be created by the use of social media tools. These records need to be captured and maintained. 

The use of third-party sites raises questions about the status of the records created. Attention needs to be given to ensure that information of importance is appropriately captured.

Social media: Another type of Commonwealth record

The web is increasingly being used to communicate and interact. Social media tools enable people to collaborate, participate, contribute and reuse information.

Common social media tools include:
  • blogs
  • wikis
  • social networking sites
  • instant messaging
  • social bookmarking
  • media sharing
  • collaborative editing sites.

Agencies have an obligation to ensure that accurate and sufficient records of government business are created and kept in a useable and accessible form for as long as they are required to support agencies’ business, and to ensure that agencies can account for their actions under administrative law.

The Archives Act 1983 does not define a record by its format. Generally, records created as a result of using social media are subject to the same business and legislative requirements as records created by other means.

Records management issues to consider when using social media tools

Third-party sites

Under the property-based definition of Commonwealth Record at Section 3 of the Archives Act 1983, information residing or stored on third-party sites may not be regarded legally as Commonwealth property and consequently may not be a Commonwealth record.

If it is necessary to ensure that Commonwealth records of an agency activity on social media sites are kept, then those records will need to be captured and stored by the originating agency. 

Web 2.0 practice is to 'go where the people are'.  Agencies often use popular third-party social media tools. However in some cases, for example when setting up a blog, using an agency-hosted or Government-hosted tool may be a viable option that would also ensure that the information remains Commonwealth property.

Social media and the 'authentic record'

Social media is dynamic. The content is ever-changing and government information may be taken up by others for use and reuse. It is therefore important to ensure that an accurate and authentic ‘original’ copy of information is captured and saved as a record.

Allocating responsibility for records capture

Agency records management policy or agency policy on using social media should also include advice about the information and records management obligations that accompany social media use. Web administrators may routinely capture records of website social media interactions, but the policy needs to make it clear when this routine capture may not be sufficient, and when individual authors have responsibility for capturing information from the social media tools that they use. Staff in the records management unit should be able to assist with these decisions.

What social media interactions need to be captured?

The same records management principles apply to social media content as to other records created in the agency. Agency staff using social media tools for official purposes need to consider which records need to be captured to comply with agency records management policy, or discuss this with their records management unit.

Do records of all social media interaction need to be kept?

Different information has different value and, therefore, different requirements for creation, capture and retention. For example, usually spam may be disposed of immediately. However, more valuable social media records such as feedback about policy would need to be retained appropriately. The decision is not always clear cut, and a judgement must be made about the material’s relevance to agency business. Records management staff can advise on an agency’s information management needs.

Case study  

Agency X has a Twitter account which is the only way a policy unit releases new policy updates to the public. 

The policy unit consults records management staff who advise that, in this instance, the 'tweets' are a record that need to be captured and retained.

The Records Manager exports the 'tweets' in plain text format into the agency' records management system. The Records Manager also determines that this use of Twitter justifies fortnightly capture of official Twitter exchanges.

Help and feedback

The National Archives Agency Service Centre can give advice on problems that agencies face in making decisions on the information and records management obligations that arise from their use of social media tools.  Feel free to pass on any comments you have on this advice or ideas for future guidance.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2014