LAKE STEVENS — The city of Lake Stevens barred almost all commenters from its official Facebook account last week, citing a rise in spam from fake accounts.
Legally, the city is likely in the clear. But residents say the decision removes an important forum for discussion.
In a Dec. 6 post to the city’s official Facebook page, staff reported spending significant time reacting to “fake city profiles” in the comment sections of recent posts. City staff have long had a policy of not responding to comments on social media, the post said, a message reiterated prominently in the page’s header image. Since there are not enough staffers to keep up constant monitoring, the decision was made to close comments entirely, according to the post.
Each post from the city now bears a message saying the page “has limited who can comment on this post.” Dawn Smith, events and marketing specialist for the city, said comments had been limited to only those tagged in a post. If the Lake Stevens Police Department, for example, was tagged by the city in a post, their page could comment on it but no one else can, Smith said.
Smith said she is one of the administrators for the city’s Facebook page. According to the page’s “About” section, there are four total page admins. Smith said she was unable to comment on the identities of the other three. Smith said the limit was the strictest setting available to the city as a public page, but that the intention was to shut down comments entirely. Comments on earlier posts would not be deleted, she said.
“We aren’t looking to prevent people from saying anything about the city. It was just the best option available to us, because we don’t have the bandwidth to read every single comment,” Smith said.
The majority of posts on the City of Lake Stevens, WA Facebook page have fewer than 10 comments. Some comment sections have gotten heated, such as the one under a Nov. 22 post about a letter the city received regarding its compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Most of the comments on that post took issue with the city and its leadership, but none appeared immediately suspicious or harmful according to Facebook’s community standards.
City Council President Kim Daughtry said he and other council members had not been involved in the decision to close comments. He was unsure who made the call, but guessed city staff had input along with Mayor Brett Gailey and City Administrator Gene Brazel. Neither Brazel nor Gailey returned The Daily Herald’s requests for comment.
Daughtry said he supported the decision to end comments on the city’s page. He said he understood the decision to come from an influx of “consistently negative discourse” from a subset of the page’s followers.
“It’s a predictable thing — there are always going to be folks who hate government,” Daughtry said. “But we didn’t need all of that coming through a public page where we’re only trying to offer facts and information.”
Though he said he wasn’t involved in running the city’s social media, Daughtry said the page was intended solely to disseminate information to residents and was “not the place for public debates.”
Daughtry said he wanted city residents to make their concerns known, but thought most of the interactions on Facebook were “one-sided.” Given the city’s policy not to respond to comments, the page was not an effective way to engage with city leadership, Daughtry said.
In the absence of social media comments, Daughtry said Lake Stevens residents should attend City Council meetings or call or email their council members directly. He said he’d recently made an effort to call each person who sent negative emails or made personal attacks to discuss their concerns one-on-one.
“I’ve called six people so far, and not one has gotten back to me,” Daughtry said. “It just goes to show that this doesn’t work if it’s all one-sided.”
And if residents really want to discuss city issues on Facebook, Daughtry said there are several groups open for discourse, including Lake Stevens Community and Concerned Residents of Lake Stevens.
Lake Stevens resident Earl Gray regularly participated in discussions with other residents on the city’s official page and those separate groups. He hadn’t seen any of the spam the city cited, but guessed “about 80%” of discussions related to dissatisfaction with how city leaders were running things. Gray said he suspected that was the main reason behind the decision to stop comments.
Gray said he didn’t think most people commented on the city’s official page expecting a response from officials. It was a place where residents could discuss issues in a more open forum than in the independent groups, where admins were free to delete comments and ban users as they saw fit, he said.
“Maybe only about two dozen people are regularly talking to each other on the official page,” Gray said. “But it was interesting to see what posts did blow up, because oftentimes these are issues those couple hundred people wouldn’t have heard about if not for another commenter.”
With the official page closed to discussion, Gray said he’ll likely continue to post occasionally in other Lake Stevens groups. Though he knew city leaders didn’t respond to comments, he felt there was a better chance they’d see what folks have to say on the official page than on others. Now, he feels he doesn’t have an effective way to communicate directly with officials.
Gray said when he’s contacted officials privately via email, he rarely gets a response. Speaking at a council meeting at least assured him he was being heard, but the council’s policy of not directly responding to public comments during a meeting meant he felt there was no chance to have an open discussion with them, he said.
The move to ban Facebook comments is most likely legal according to existing precedent, said Toby Nixon, president emeritus of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. Official government pages don’t have to allow comments at all, but if they do, they must allow all comments, regardless of content or who’s posting, Nixon said.
“Legally, they don’t even really have to provide a reason why they are or aren’t allowing comments,” said Nixon, who serves on the Kirkland City Council. “Though from the perspective of political consequences, they ought to tell the truth about it.”
The loophole allowing those tagged in a post to comment creates a minor gray area, Nixon said. But the city policy against commenting on its own posts would likely mean comments were entirely closed in practice.
Nixon said federal courts have ruled on several occasions that elected officials can’t pick and choose which views appear on their social media, including a decision that found then-President Donald Trump blocking users on Twitter constituted a violation of the First Amendment. In 2021, residents sued the city of Sammamish for selectively deleting comments on an official Facebook page. A federal court judge sided with the residents.
But as long as Lake Stevens is blocking all comments, they’re probably in the clear, Nixon said.
“There’s no law that says that if a citizen even emails the city council member and asks about a news release, that that city council member has to respond,” Nixon said. “In the case of social media, a city can treat it like they would any other way they promulgate what they want to be known.”
Riley Haun: 425-339-3192; email@example.com; Twitter: @RHaunID.
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