Regulations regarding ministers' social media use remain unclear

Computer keyboard.
Computer keyboard. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

As the 2023 Riigikogu elections draw closer, more and more posts are appearing on government ministers' social media accounts related to their work and their political parties. While public funds cannot be used to produce images and other content posted on personal social media posts, the line between what is and is not allowed remains blurred.

According to Liisa Oviir, director of the Party Funding Supervision Committee (ERJK), people are becoming increasingly aware of politicians' use of social media for campaigning purposes. As a result, they contact the ERJK in instances, where they suspect public funds have been misused in order to produce social media content, which promotes politicians or political parties.

Oviir said, that for this reason, the ERJK has requested an assessment from the Ministry of Justice regarding ways ministers are allowed to use images, which have been taken in the course of fulfilling their work duties, on their personal social media channels.

Oviir pointed to one example of an appeal it received regarding the inclusion of links to ministers' social media accounts in their profiles on the government website. However, the EJRK does not consider this to be in violation of the law.

"It can be handled in different ways, especially from an ethical perspective. My personal view is, that we need to know about the people who exercise public power. As there is only a link (included in their profiles on the government website) and no content that could be considered to be advertising, we think it is allowed," Oviir said.

Another instance referred to the ERJK, involved former Minister of Education and Research Liina Kersna (Reform), whereby during her term of office, the minister's driver was paid extra for taking photographs, which were posted on social media. In this case too, the committee also found that there had been no sign of wrongdoing. "Those pictures were posted in parallel on both the ministry's website and the minister's own personal social media account," Oviir said.

Pictures taken with public funds cannot be used for campaigning purposes

According to the Ministry of Justice, each case must be assessed on an individual basis and it is important that photos used for campaigning purposes are not ones that have been taken using public funds.

However, the line between what is and is not acceptable remains blurred.

"Nowadays, when everyone has a smartphone in their hand, if you take 10 pictures of an award ceremony and one of them goes on the ministry's page and maybe another goes on a politician's (social media) page, then this raises more and more questions," Oviir said.

The Ministry of Justice also highlighted that, if a ministry shares pictures of a minister attending an event, the minister is also allowed to distribute those same images via their own social media channels.

However, if a photographer who is paid from the ministry's budget takes pictures at events, which are not part of the ministry's core activities and a minister then shares them on their own personal social media account, this could be considered to constitute a form of donation, which is prohibited.

In addition, according to the Ministry of Justice, if a minister allows information to be written about themselves on the ministry's social media account in a way, which promotes a particular political party, then this may also be considered a form of political activity. However, they are allowed to highlight the ministry's activities and achievements on their own channels.

"When the ministry or an institution are making an effort (toward achieving a goal -ed.), then it was a team effort and the minister's role was more as the leader of that ministry. However, as the initiator of a particular idea, a party is allowed to highlight itself (and its role)," said Elizabeth Mast, public relations adviser at the Ministry of Justice.

If a ministry has published pictures on one of its social media channels, they may also be shared on other platforms.

Ethical issues up to voters to decide on

The Ministry of Justice pointed out, that the principles of government communication require separation between the management of government social media channels those of political parties. This function should be performed by ministers' political advisers or by party spokespersons.

According to Oviir, regulating the use of social media by politicians is a complicated task, highlighting the question of the extent to which a minister's campaign may be organized by their political advisor.

"On the one hand, yes, he or she receives a salary from the ministry's budget. However, at the same time, making clear distinctions between times when they were outside work meeting voters, or whether they were (in a certain place) as a friend, a party colleague or a ministry employee - these things require (some kind of) social agreement," said Oviir, adding that it was also crucial to apply common sense when assessing such cases.  

The Ministry of Justice also pointed out that, the current social media regulations are rather abstract, and that it is not possible to account for the law to account for all the possible situations, which may arise.

As a result, it believed the EJRK should provide its guidance and recommendations in order to ensure a more standardized understanding of issues related to social media use is in place in the future.

According to Oviir, the ERJK is planning to do exactly that, drawing up social media guidelines, not least in order to reduce the committee's workload in light of the ever-increasing amount of content being posted.

"There is no malicious desire to use public resources in every (social media) post. A lot of these issues are related to ethics and will ultimately be judged by the electorate," she said.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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