Government work and political party work must be clearly separated on social media

19 April 2024 - Media ownership of the accounts not clearly recognizable in some cases

In public relations, government work must be clearly separated from party-political and personal social media activities. However, this is not always the case, as the ACA ascertained in its report “Social Media Accounts of Government Members” („Social-Media-Accounts von Regierungsmitgliedern“) published today. Challenges arise from classification issues tied to possible conflicts of interest.

The ACA audited one government member from each of the 2022 parties represented in Parliament. In four out of five cases, social media accounts linked to political parties were managed by public employees at the member of government's office, alongside other responsibilities. This leads to an intermingling of state and party resources.

The ACA recommends to refrain from using public resources for managing party-owned social media accounts of government members. The audit covered the period from January 2020 to June 2022.

No public resources for party work

The ACA audited the social media accounts of the following government members: Federal Chancellor Karl Nehammer (Federal Chancellery/Austrian People's Party), Vice-Chancellor Werner Kogler (Federal Ministry for Arts, Culture, the Civil Service and Sports/The Greens), Governor Hans Peter Doskozil (Burgenland/Social Democratic Party), Deputy Governor Manfred Haimbuchner (Upper Austria/Freedom Party) and Deputy Mayor Christoph Wiederkehr (City of Vienna/NEOS).

When public employees manage social media accounts of political parties alongside their other responsibilities, state and party resources are intermixed. In the ACA’s view, such overlaps are problematic with regard to the principle of transparency and the Political Parties Act: Public human resources and materials are used for political-party ends, without reimbursement. Clear rules are required to regulate this problem, which poses itself throughout the entire office period of members of government.

The ACA critically notes that in four out of the five audited cases (Federal Chancellery, Federal Ministry for Arts, Burgenland, and City of Vienna), social media accounts were managed by staff of the government members' offices – thus, by public employees.

In the province of Burgenland, the Governor’s accounts were exclusively managed by the Office of the Governor. In case of the Federal Chancellery, the Federal Ministry for Arts, and the City of Vienna, they were run by public employees and by staff of the political parties. In addition, the Deputy Mayor of the City of Vienna managed two of his accounts himself.

The postings did not show who created, edited or published them – staff members of the audited entities or employees of the respective parties. The use of public resources for party politics poses a problem with regard to possible unacceptable donations: According to the Political Parties Act, parties may not accept donations from public bodies, such as the auditees.

The province of Upper Austria repeatedly informed the auditors that no staff members of the Deputy Governor’s office contributed to creating social media content for the Deputy Governor’s accounts.

The ACA recommends to refrain from using public resources for managing government members’ social media accounts owned by a party.

Media owners are hard to discern

Ownership of government members’ social media accounts is of key importance. However, it was generally hard to discern for average users (except for the Vice Chancellor’s account).

DiOn the accounts reviewed during the audit, information about media owners was provided in different ways – e.g. on the landing page or by using hyperlinks. However, in some cases, it was difficult or impossible for average users to find out who owned the accounts.

For example, in case of the TikTok accounts of the Federal Chancellor and the Upper Austrian Deputy Governor, the respective media owners could not be identified on the basis of the account information. Four accounts of the Viennese Vice Mayor did not indicate if they were owned by the City of Vienna or by the Vice Mayor as a private individual.

The Instagram account of Burgenland’s Governor Hans Peter Doskozil was linked to the province since December 2022. Until then, it was not clearly indicated who owned the account. Until September 2022, Doskozil’s Facebook account was linked to his personal website – on which the Social Democratic Party was provided as a contact point in the legal notice. The link was only changed to the Burgenland province in the course of the audit.

With the aim of transparency, the ACA recommends to the Federal Chancellery, the provinces of Burgenland and Upper Austria, and to the City of Vienna to work towards a simple and direct retrieval of information about the respective media owners on the social media accounts of government members.

Written guidelines on separation of government information and party advertising

The ACA ascertained that the Federal Ministry for Arts and the province of Burgenland did not have any written guidelines concerning the separation of government work and party work. The Burgenland province referred to its compliance guidelines and staff regulations – which, however, did not regulate the matter.

At the Federal Chancellery and the Federal Ministry for Arts, the units responsible for public information were not aware of the existence of “Guidelines for Public Relations and Information of the Federal Chancellery and the Federal Ministries” adopted by the Council of Ministers. These guidelines provide, inter alia, that public relations and information should be designed with a view to avoid the impression of political advertising for a particular party.

The City of Vienna requires in its guidelines that the responsible staff members use a politically neutral wording and delete postings and comments with election advertising or advertising for political parties.

In the province of Upper Austria, the separation of government information and party advertising was clearly regulated and documented in a transparent way.

A look at Germany: Parties enjoy right to equal opportunities

In its report, the ACA also refers to the German approach to public information provided by government agencies. The guiding principles for permissible public relations work, which were established by the German Federal Constitutional Court and the German Federal Press Office, also apply to social media. Among other things, German government agencies must observe the principle of neutrality and the parties’ right to equal opportunities. The government may not use its public relations work to support the ruling parties or to disparage the opposition. Moreover, the parties in power must not exploit their government functions by resorting to means and opportunities which are not available to their political opponents.

In this light, the German Chancellor used separate social media accounts for governmental activities (owned by the government’s press and information office) and for party-political work (owned by his party).

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Report: Social Media Accounts of Government Members (in German)

Report: Social Media Accounts of Government Members (in German) Download