Social media: The next generation of archiving

Agencies have gotten into the habit of archiving email, but now they face the task of preserving another category of electronic documents: social media communications.

Social Media Tree

Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have become commonplace tools for government outreach. Agencies tweet about everything from developments in medical research to public safety information. Federal Facebook pages offer a similar scope of government missives, while YouTube provides a collection of briefings, speeches and agency news. And the number of social media platforms continues to expand, with services such as Pinterest growing in popularity among government agencies this year.

Against that backdrop, agencies have started retaining and archiving social media. It's a challenging endeavor. They need to determine which communications must be preserved and then devise archival strategies for a still-evolving set of platforms.

"The social media landscape changes frequently, and the tools and platforms that we use to engage with the public constantly evolve," said Richard Stapleton, senior deputy at the Digital Communications Division and senior Web strategist at the Department of Health and Human Services. "This past year, our office began using Vine, Pinterest, Tumblr and Storify. Each of these platforms requires a new evaluation and approach."

Social recordkeepers are using home-grown methods to preserve communications, tapping capabilities native to specific social media platforms and adopting emerging third-party social media archiving tools.

Why it matters

The Federal Records Act casts a wide net for what constitutes a federal record. The act defines a record as any material — "regardless of physical form or characteristics" — that an agency creates or receives in the course of conducting public business and that warrants preservation.

A blog, tweet or other social media post may be deemed a federal record under that definition. A recent bulletin from the National Archives and Records Administration underscores that point.

"Content on social media is likely a federal record," NARA's Oct. 25 notice states. "Agencies must identify the official record and determine how it will be managed. Some social media records may be temporary, with a transitory, short- or long-term retention. Some may even be permanent, such as a blog by an agency senior official."

The current focus on social media stems, in part, from the Managing Government Records Directive, which the Obama administration launched last year. The directive aims to create a records management framework that better monitors agency actions. The initiative calls for NARA to create a plan that outlines "suitable approaches for the automated management of email, social media and other types of digital content."

To that end, NARA released a request for information in September regarding automated electronic records management solutions. The RFI asks vendors to submit capability statements detailing solutions and services for moving agencies to electronic recordkeeping.

"We are still in the process of reviewing the responses to our RFI," said Paul Wester Jr., chief records officer at NARA. "We received several dozen responses from our stakeholder community."

He said NARA intends to produce a preliminary plan by the end of the calendar year, in accordance with the Managing Government Records Directive.

The fundamentals

The initial job for agencies is determining which social media communications rise to the standard of a federal record. NARA's recent bulletin provides a list of questions to help agencies make the call on a given piece of social media content:

  • Does it contain evidence of an agency's policies, business or mission?
  • Is the information available only on the social media site?
  • Does the agency use the tool to convey official information?
  • Is there a business need for the information?

A "yes" answer to any of those questions means that the content is likely a federal record, according to NARA.

Ultimately, it is up to each agency to evaluate records and interpret the applicable laws and regulations. And they are taking a variety of approaches.

Jason Townsend, NASA's deputy social media manager, said the agency's retention policy covers all records generated by the agency and is based on the content and use of the individual record, regardless of format. However, he noted, not all social media posts are created equal.

"Our NASA records officials have determined that social media posts are typically either duplicative content that resides elsewhere in other official, non-social media records or consists of transitory-type content that lacks significant retention value," Townsend said. "The exceptions include social media content created by high-level or otherwise prominent officials."

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are not distinguishing between types of social media posts at this point.

"Right now what we are doing is just taking an approach to archiving everything that we have posted," said Carol Crawford, chief of the Digital Media Branch at CDC.

At the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs "maintains an archive of posts we make but not comments or responses to those posts," said Megan Moloney, director of digital media engagement at VA.

VA's social media pages include a disclaimer stating that the department will not collect or retain comments in its records. That measure arises from a VA directive titled "Use of Web-Based Collaboration Technologies" issued in 2011. The directive also states that a VA social media site is a public forum, that any information provided in comments may be publicly available on the site and that the privacy policies of that site will apply.

Once agencies settle on a social media policy, they can look into various archiving approaches. One method is to take screen shots of, say, Facebook or Twitter pages and preserve them. Some agencies also copy and paste social media posts to a Word document or other format for archiving. In addition, archiving tools are available via social media platforms and third-party vendors.

Crawford said CDC uses's Radian6 social media monitoring tool to archive its Twitter posts. For other platforms, CDC uses the copy-and-paste method. Although the process sounds arduous, Crawford said it doesn't take too much time to archive that way.

Stapleton said HHS uses a range of tools and approaches to archive its social media content. "For instance, in addition to posting all comments on the blog on our Digital Strategy website, we are capturing them in a database that will be part of an eventual archive," he said.

HHS has also launched a Web content archiving initiative as part of a new Website Content Lifecycle Management program and began using the Internet Archive's Archive-It service in September.

"While this effort is currently focused on static content, we are evaluating the archiving functionality that Archive-It offers for social media," Stapleton said. He added that HHS continues to investigate new options for streamlining the social media archiving process.

What’s next for social media archiving

President Barack Obama’s Managing Government Records Directive gives the National Archives and Records Administration a central role in providing guidance to federal agencies on archiving social media content. Here is some of what NARA must do in the coming year:

  • Create a plan describing approaches for automating digital records content, including social media. The plan is scheduled for publication by December.
  • Work with the CIO Council and the Federal Records Council to “obtain external involvement” in the creation of open-source records management solutions by Dec. 31, 2014.

At NASA, Townsend said the agency is capturing materials from high-level officials and historically significant posts using the tools provided by the respective social media platforms, which include being able to download an archive of updates. Twitter, for example, allows users to download their Twitter archives so they can view their tweets by month and search for specific posts.

Moloney said employees in VA's Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs use online tools to export VA-created social media posts to the office's archived files on a monthly basis.

Vendors also provide social media archiving services. ArchiveSocial, for example, extracts data from social media platforms via open application programming interfaces and pulls the information into a single records management system that is hosted online, said Anil Chawla, founder and CEO of ArchiveSocial.

He said the company's government customers include NARA, which has used the cloud service for its social media accounts.

Smarsh, which provides cloud-based archiving solutions for email, social media and other messaging channels, also pursues the government sector.

David Ambrose, director of public-sector initiatives at Smarsh, said the financial services sector was an early adopter of social media archiving tools, but the public sector "has been very quick to follow."

The hurdles

Social media archiving presents agencies with a number of potential obstacles. HHS' Stapleton said one challenge is understanding what options exist for archiving records in each particular platform.

"These challenges are compounded by the fact that social media platforms continue to evolve and change — often without notice — and these changes can significantly impact archiving processes and procedures," he added.

Ambrose agreed. "Once you think you have one figured out, the next one is around the corner," he said.

In addition, Stapleton said working with third-party platforms requires a federally compatible terms-of-service agreement. That consideration applies to both the platforms HHS uses to publish social media and the tools for archiving social media, he added.

"Resolving legal issues often found in social media [terms-of-service] agreements, including archiving platforms, can be difficult and sometimes impossible," he said.