What Happens to Social Media When the Government Shuts Down?

Who’s the voice behind @SenJohnMcCain on Twitter? Is 76-year old Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley really the one tweeting those famous tweets? Does House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi know how to update her own Facebook page? Those questions and more may soon be answered if the government shuts down, and the social media fun really begins.

Who’s the voice behind @SenJohnMcCain on Twitter?  Is 76-year old Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley really the one tweeting those famous tweets?  Does House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi know how to update her own Facebook page?  Those questions and more may soon be answered if the government shuts down, and the social media fun really begins.

We won’t know until midnight tonight if the threat of a federal government shutdown is real, or for how long. But we do know one thing:  if a shutdown happens, Members of Congress are on their own when it comes to updating their Facebook and Twitter pages until the government returns to work.

As Karen Tumulty reports in the Washington Post, “Under the provisions of a 19th-century law known as the Anti-Deficiency Act, it is quite literally illegal for federal employees deemed nonessential to voluntarily work during a shutdown. In the modern era, that means they can’t use e-mail or voice mail.”

That also means, in turn, that staffers won’t be able to log online to update their bosses’ Twitter and Facebook pages that now serve as the preferred way for Members of Congress to engage with each other, the media and constituents.

Still up in the air is which Congressional staffers will be deemed non-essential, and what exactly they will be banned from doing on the Web.

Lawmakers are unique in having some discretion as to who remains on the job among their staffs, so perhaps the “essential” staff in this the first potential government shutdown of the 21st century will not be the member’s chief of staff or top policy director, but who on the staff knows how to update the member’s Facebook, Twitter and website pages.

An anonymous Senate committee staffer who had been briefed on the shutdown procedures told the Post the guidance is likely to be that staff members may “read but not write” on their mobile devices.

So only the truth of a government shutdown will tell, which members of Congress are running their own Twitter feeds and Facebook and which ones are relying on staff.

Politico’s Morning Tech reports Facebook has gone so far as to prepare a tip sheet for Members of Congress on how to update their own Facebook pages if a shutdown does occur. The proactive memo was reportedly sent to the leadership teams and party committees of both parties and included step-by-step instructions on Facebook basics like posting updates and adding photos.

Also at threat in the event of a shutdown are the .gov websites of federal agencies.

Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Jack Lew sent a memo to the heads of executive departments and agencies with instructions to make a call on whether their websites are crucial or not.

The home pages of websites deemed non-essential would be replaced by a standard notice that the government’s funding lapse is to blame.

Providing public access to government information is not enough to keep the website running, the memo said, while, keeping some websites, like the IRS, online could be critical.

“If maintenance of the website is necessary to avoid significant damage to the execution of authorized or excepted activities … then the website should remain operational even if its costs are funded through appropriations that have lapsed,” the memo said.

In the face of a government shutdown over the federal budget, it’s not without irony the OMB memo also instructed that agencies should shut down their websites even if the cost of taking it offline exceeds the cost of keeping it up.