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How museums can social media safely and responsibly in an online world of trolls and other monsters

Social media is an essential tool for most museums looking to stand out in the modern age. But it’s important to proceed with care to avoid some of the common traps that we’ve all seen catch out others in the past.

Social media can be a difficult beast to tame, especially when you’re trying to ensure safe use by marketers, staff and visitors alike. Implementing a social media policy is just one vital step in ensuring that online interactions are done so within a safe (and widely agreed upon) framework that adheres to the values of the organisation. This allows museums to fully embrace the positive impacts of engaging with an audience online.

Sadly, trolling and online bullying have become staple parts of the social media experience. In 2014, a study published in the psychology journal Personality and Individual Differences reported that 5% of internet users self-identified as trolls, scoring extremely high on personality traits like psychopathy, narcissism and sadism. By 2021, according to the End Now Foundation, 25% of social media users have been subjected to some form of trolling during their usage.

For organisations and venues, this trolling can take the form of spamming the comments section, skewing the meaning of posted content, and even – in more severe cases – cybercrime. The improper use of social media can pose a significant risk to any cultural institution’s reputation, which is why safety and integrity are vital when it comes to the social media presence of any museum or gallery.

Safe and appropriate social media usage for museums

Although social media has seen an explosion in usage over the last decade or more, the COVID-19 pandemic hammered home its value as a critical engagement tool and a way to reach new audiences, both locally and globally. With in-person visits impossible, many museums relied solely on social media to keep audiences interested in what they had to offer. This resulted in some of the most innovative online campaigns to come out of museum spaces, but with increased use comes increased risk.

The inappropriate use of social media can pose significant threats to individuals and the wider establishment alike. Earlier this year The Art Newspaper conducted a poll on Instagram and found that 75% of their followers had experienced some form of trolling online, with a third saying it had impacted them enough to take a break from the app or modify their content.

Bearman and Trant (2008) summarise the relationship between the museum and the online world by saying: “the open culture that might make museums work better in the Web environment is part promise, part threat.”

Clear internal collaboration and consensus

Open and honest communication between all members of the museum family ensures that everyone is on the same page when it comes to promoting best practice on social media. Staff and volunteers must be reminded that they are ambassadors for the museum and its brand, and that social media is publicly accessible. Having a clear ethical stance within the museum space encourages others to follow suit, with safe and appropriate social media usage, making collaboration and consensus across the museum paramount.

Acceptable use policies (AUPs) can be adopted throughout an organisation to promote consistently safe social media usage. The Manchester Safeguarding Partnership offers good practice guidelines as a starting point for organisations looking to promote safe social media usage. These tips include:

  • Ensuring that all communications made via social media are aligned with your organisation’s ethical policy
  • Avoiding sharing any content which could be seen as defamatory, libellous or obscene
  • Avoiding comments that exhibit or endorse (or may appear to exhibit or endorse) irresponsible behaviour or law breaking of any kind
  • Making staff and volunteers aware that they are responsible for the data on their own electronic devices.

Creating an effective social media policy that covers all bases

Having a policy in place on the safe and appropriate use of social media is essential for all cultural institutions, and can help leaders avoid the headaches and hardships brought about by trolling and other unsavoury social media side effects. Individual organisations are responsible for making sure that policies are legally viable and comprehensive, but there are many templates available online to help tick every box.

With a clear framework in place for online content and communication, museums can enjoy the benefits of social media without fearing the worst of its drawbacks.

The MuseumNext Digital Summit 2022 kicks off on the 6th June, and will feature inspiring ideas and case studies from those championing the latest and greatest digital innovations in museums and galleries. Click here to book your tickets now, to make sure you don’t miss out.

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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