Alachua County’s social media is still closed for comments

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Alachua County’s Communications Office turned off comments on their social media pages, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, in October. The accounts have followed the new protocol since then, according to Mark Sexton, Alachua County’s communications director. 

This precedes a decision from Alachua County Public Schools to indefinitely disable comments on its Facebook page Nov. 12. 

“We decided we were not going to take part in a system that’s designed to harm our community and the world we live in,” Sexton said.

The county explained that it’s not their intent to use social media sites as public forums for discussion, but rather as platforms for them to share information with residents. 

“In light of recent disclosures about the algorithms used by social media to encourage hatred, conflict, misleading and false information, and dangerous behaviors; the County has decided to turn off the comment function on our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts,” they wrote in an announcement on Oct. 15. 

For a while, there were conversations among city commissioners regarding social media issues, according to Sexton. But the “straw that broke the camel’s back” was whistleblower Frances Haugen’s “60 Minutes” interview where she exposed Facebook’s algorithm that encourages hate speech and misinformation.

According to Sexton, all county social media accounts are currently following the decision.

Sexton explained that there are other ways for concerned citizens to speak with the local government, such as email, phone calls and county websites. 

“Our social media accounts have never been a way of direct communication with commissioners or staff, nor is it the most effective,” said Sexton.

Alachua County social media comments
A message reading “Alachua County limited who can comment on this post” appears under each post. (Alachua County Facebook page)

He said some people are not in support of the decision.

“They wanted to have the ability to comment on every post,” Sexton said. “But we have also gotten an enormous amount of positive feedback in the community.”

Justino Quezada Jr., who has been living in Gainesville for three years, said he was confused about the county’s decision at first.

“I just didn’t see the point in restricting everyone’s ability to comment,” he said. “But I also don’t feel like my rights are being violated or anything because I can still voice my opinion, just in other ways and through other platforms.” 

Residents can still interact with social media posts despite not being able to comment. The county’s decision does not restrict reaction emojis and shares, meaning individuals can still share posts and publish concerns and debates on their own accounts. 

“For right now, the county manager and county attorney are kind of defaulting with ‘let’s do it across the board, and we can keep an eye on it and assess it,’” said Sexton.

Some Alachua County departments, like Animal Services, have a robust social media page for adopting pets and have always had an active social media section. But the county noticed their page is now receiving more reactions and shared posts than before the change was made to disable comments.

Legally, once a government agency sets up a social media account, it’s understood to be public property used to communicate with elected officials, according to Frank LoMonte, director of  the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information.

LoMonte investigated the county’s decision for any First Amendment violations and said it is entirely legal because they’re not punishing specific users of viewpoints.

“There’s a clear consensus among the courts that once you set up a page and welcome comments, you’re not obligated to keep it forever,” he said. “You can switch it off whenever.”

He said there would only be a First Amendment problem if the county were to pick and choose specific users to restrict, but turning the feature off altogether doesn’t raise legal issues regarding viewpoint discrimination.

About Alenis Olivera

Alenis is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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