A COUNCIL media chief has admitted using “spy accounts” on Facebook and Twitter to monitor the activity of critical groups.
Jo Smith, communications manager with Argyll and Bute, is reported to have shocked delegates at a social media event with her admission.
Ms Smith today denied claims she had set up bogus sites but appeared to confirm that informants were passing on information.
The council has been locked in a series of battles with residents over issues such as school closures and potholed roads.
A delegate at the social media event in Glasgow, who asked not to be named, said: “Ms Smith gave a powerful presentation about the highs and lows of using social media.”
The source, quoted in a newspaper report today, claimed: “But there was a sense of shock in the room when she described how she set up fake accounts on Facebook and Twitter to spy on people and groups who oppose the council.
“From a professional public relations point of view it is really poor behaviour.
“You may not like what taxpayers are saying about you online but you can’t pretend to be one of them in order to find out what they are saying.
“Other professional communicators in the room were very uncomfortable about it – not only is it unethical, it was strange to tell other people about it.”
Lynda Henderson, who runs a local news website forargyll.com, has previously criticised the council over school closures.
She described the tactic as “underhand”, adding: “That is genuinely horrific. It did not occur to me they would go that far. That’s pretty evil.”
Ms Smith today (Fri) admitted using the phrase “spy accounts” but insisted her comments had been taken out of context and denied the existence of fake accounts.
She said: “We certainly haven’t got any fake accounts.
“A presentation at the conference included reference to ‘spy accounts’, which was a bad choice of words looking back.”
She added: “People are coming to us with things they have seen on social media.”
At that point, Ms Smith hung up to take another call and was then not contactable.
Another speaker at the event, Gary McGrow, who works with the Scottish Health Council, questioned Ms Smith’s ethics at the time.
But he said he now believed it was a well-intentioned experiment.
He said: “It was being called a spy account but what it really is is a dummy account.
“A lot of public sector organisations are struggling with the use of social media . What she was trying to do was find out how other people were using it, as a project, with a name not linked to the council. I don’t have any concerns about it now.”
A spokeswoman for the local authority said: “Argyll and Bute council does not use and does not condone the use of covert social media accounts.
“The council does use social media as a valuable way to engage with communities.
“We regularly use social media to provide residents with information about weather, school closures and traffic. Recently we used web chats as part of our budget consultation.
“Social media allows us to engage with resident s on a personal level and is invaluable in an area covering such a large geographic spread.”