NANAIMO — The City of Nanaimo will remove its official Facebook page if it can't find a way to permanently turn off comments from the public.
During Monday's open meeting, it was announced Council endorsed a staff recommendation to remove the page entirely if they can not find a way to have the comment section removed. The decision was made during an in-camera meeting Monday afternoon.
More to come on this story.
A decision to remove comments from the City of Nanaimo's Facebook page is the latest change in the discourse between the municipality and its citizens.
The City removed comment sections from their page over the weekend, a move CAO Tracy Samra initiated following what she described as lewd, racist and defamatory posts.
"I instructed staff to turn off the comment section until we had a chance to sit down with council and get a decision from them on how we want to deal with our social media platforms," Samra told NanaimoNewsNOW. "We never had a policy for our Facebook page so we're looking at putting together a policy to guide how we run and monitor our social media."
Samra said Council will discuss the issue in-camera on Monday night. In order to properly monitor the City's page, which has 9,400 followers, Samra said it would require one or two additional employees to be hired.
"I won't make that recommendation to council because I think our needs are higher in other departments (and) that takes a larger priority than monitoring Facebook comments."
The decision to eliminate comments from Facebook followed the release of a series of City-produced videos intended to give taxpayers a better understanding of upcoming budget deliberations. The videos were met with many negative reactions, with some online users accusing the City of deleting fair commentary. The page was flooded with negative ratings, which are no longer visible to the public.
The way the City handles interactions with the public and the media has changed dramatically since director of communications Philip Cooper was let go in September.
In October, the City implemented a new policy requiring citizens to submit their queries in writing for approval before they can be read during question period at open Council meetings.
Interactions with the media have also changed significantly. In the past, media was able to email City staffers directly to organize interviews and ask questions. Now, a list of questions must be pre-approved before interviews are granted. While front line communications employees respond quickly, many requests have gone unanswered for weeks.
Dr. Chaseten Remillard, assistant professor and program head for the School of Communication and Culture at Royal Roads University, said the City, like many governments and companies, is likely coming to terms with the reality that having a social media presence requires a much higher level of resources than anticipated.
Remillard said several factors stack up against organizations: People expect immediate responsiveness and engagement and there's a growing trend of negative, inflammatory and inaccurate dialogue.
"Organizations like governments are in a situation where a lot of times responses need to go through legal and liability...What's happening is there is a trend for organizations to not be as responsive on social media and revert back to a standard broadcast model where they create a static update and don't allow for a response," Remillard said.
He said ultimately he's not a proponent of shutting off commentary, noting Facebook is a venue where a lot of people feel comfortable reaching out. There's an expectation social media is a "conduit for direct democracy," he said.
"That the government is able to have a higher level of engagement and dialogue with the citizenship through social media...It's a high level of engagement most of us are participating in on that platform so I think it extends out to public institutions as well.
"These types of tensions and differences in expectations on usage are to be expected and what is protocol now might not be in two weeks...But the fundamentals of what make government good remain the same, which is responsiveness, respect and taking people's concerns seriously."
Peter Urquhart, who is an administrator for the Facebook group Nanaimo Talk and a volunteer on the City's Community Engagement Task Force, said the removal of comments on the City's page was surprising to him and seemed like a knee-jerk reaction.
"I felt it went deep into censorship. One of my other biggest concerns is not only does it stop people from talking...But we also have a case where in other mediums things aren't getting answered. It's almost one of the last things people feel they can voice their opinions on," he said, stressing he does not speak for the Task Force.
The only councillor to offer comment was Gord Fuller, who said he "totally agrees" with the step taken by the City.
"If folk have questions they can contact staff or council by other means. People can also enter debate on Facebook political groups if they choose...I have seen some of the nasty comments against staff on the political groups and can understand the city doing what they have," Fuller said in an email.
On Twitter: @domabassi
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