Social media and your responsibilities

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I often get asked “where does social media sit within accessibility regulations and obligations?” Does it fall under the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No.2) Accessibility Regulations 2018 (PSBAR) or the Equality Act 2010?

In this guide we will discuss where social media may fit within the UK regulation landscape when it comes to accessibility requirements. For more practical guidance on creating and publishing accessible social media content please check out our other social media guides.

Social media and PSBAR

Within the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No.2) Accessibility Regulations 2018 (PSBAR) there is no specific mention one way or the other for social media content. There is no mention that social media content as a group is in scope of the regulations, likewise there is also no mention of social media content specifically as a type of content exempt or not within scope of the regulations.

We must dissect the regulation text to form a view of where social media content may sit within the scope.

Firstly, let’s start with the overarching application. The regulations apply to “websites or mobile applications of a public sector body” (Part 1.4.1). We know that “websites or mobile applications” refers to more than just the platforms themselves as a navigable set of pages and interactive elements. This broad umbrella and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.2 (WCAG 2.2) that underpin the regulations also covers many requirements for different types of content which are published on websites. This includes text, images, videos, documents and other forms of content.

In fact the regulations take an exclusionary approach, assuming that all “web” content is in scope unless otherwise specified in the list of exemptions (Part 1.4.2) which are primarily based on either creation date, use in an “active administrative function” (Part 1.4.2a), or due to the content being outside of the control of the public sector body (Part 1.4.2e).

If we were to publish text, images, videos or other content commonly used in social media posts to a public sector body owned and managed website, there would be no confusion, and the expectation under the regulations would be that the content must comply with accessibility requirements. And indeed, a lot of content that is produced for social media is often branding content that is reused in other locations including on self-managed websites for promotional purposes.

Using 3rd party platforms

So, if we publish public sector body created content to a 3rd party managed social media platform, does that change our responsibilities under the regulations? I would argue that it does not.

To explain why, we should refer to the 3rd party responsibilities guide which asks our 5 key questions to determine responsibilities under the regulations when using 3rd party content and platforms.

The five key questions are:

  1. Is the content bespoke for you?
  2. Is the content hosted by you?
  3. Are there alternative options?
  4. Are there other legal or statutory pressure?
  5. Did you pay for it?
Info: Before we answer these questions, let us address a creeping confusion because of the generic term “content”. In the 3rd party responsibilities guide we use the term 3rd party content to refer to anything created by a 3rd party that you are using, this includes both platforms and “proper content” like images, text, videos etc.

Because of the different types of “content” we are referring to we should ask these questions twice. Once for the content the public sector body is producing to put on the platform, and once for using the social media platform as a 3rd party vehicle to share web content.

First let us consider the content produced by the public sector body for publishing. We know this is in scope normally but has anything changed?

  1. The content is very likely to be bespoke for the public sector body whether that was created internally or by an agency.
  2. The content is not hosted by the public sector body in this example.
  3. There are not existing alternatives to this content because it has likely been created specifically to address a promotional need, but the organisation may have options to adjust or redo content that does not meet accessibility needs.
  4. There are likely no other legal or statutory pressures that dictate that the content must be published in this way even if inaccessible.
  5. The public sector body presumably paid for it in some respect whether it was created internally or by an agency.

With these answers it is clear that even while hosted by a 3rd party, because the public sector body is the one doing the publishing and still retains control over that content, it is their responsibility to ensure that the content is accessible.

Second, let’s consider the use of the 3rd party platform as the vehicle to publishing the content.

  1. The platform itself is not bespoke to the public sector body. It is a common platform that the public sector body signs up to use and has no direct control over.
  2. The platform is not hosted by the public sector body.
  3. Yes, there are many alternative social media platforms available. Though not all may offer the same channels for content types.
  4. There are likely no other legal or statutory pressures that dictate that a public sector body must use a specific social media platform to the exclusion of others.
  5. The public sector body may pay for additional features on a social media platform but generally the ability to post content is a free product.

With these answers it is clear that the public sector body is not responsible for the accessibility of the 3rd party platform both in its own navigation for users, and the limitations it places on the content published by users such as the public sector body.

The results

Working through these questions gives us the answer that suggests under PSBAR that digital content created by a public sector body even for publishing through 3rd party platforms like social media sites is in scope of the accessibility regulation responsibilities. However, the accessibility of the social media platforms themselves and any limitations they place on content creation by users is not the responsibility of the public sector body (Part 1.4.2e).

The reason it is this way is because it is still the public sector body choosing to use this avenue as a publishing route, and because the public sector body still retains full control over what content they publish (within the limitations of the platform). In this way, the social media account for the public sector body, and the content they publish through that account are effectively seen as an official communication channel of that organisation and meet the definition of “content that is funded, or developed by, or under the control of the public sector body”. The direct opposite of the listed exemption.

This is a very pragmatic result, because it means that public sector bodies should still take responsibility for the accessibility of their social media content as much as possible, up to the limits provided by the social media platforms, but it does not penalise public sector bodies for using any particular social media platform even if it does have accessibility issues. This maintains the expectation of good practice for the public sector body but does not force them to reduce their avenues of communication which may still help them reach relevant audiences.

Social media and the Equality Act

What about if you are not a UK public sector body in scope of PSBAR? Then we can fall back on the trusty Equality Act 2010 to provide our clarity.

Under the Equality Act we are all expected to be able to make reasonable adjustments to not discriminate against users with protected characteristics. When it comes to social media content and accessibility, I propose that the approach under the Equality Act must be proactive and anticipatory rather than retroactive accommodations.

My reasoning for this is that to offer a comparative social media experience, it must be in the original instance that the user interacts with the content. I suggest this is the case because of the unique purpose of social media. It is not only a one way communication channel for accounts to broadcast their content, but a multi-directional communication channel that enables engagement between the publishing account and users, and engagement between users and other users. It is this last point that seals my proposed interpretation.

Social media posts gain comments, engagement and viewership once they are posted. For a disabled user to truly have a comparative experience with the published content, they must also be able to engage with the discourse that surrounds the content.

Content engagement is significantly time sensitive, so if a user is not able to engage with the post and discourse during this period, then they effectively “miss the boat”. Reposting of the content in a more accessible way in no way assures that the same engagement will occur. In fact, it is less likely. Therefore, while I do suggest that an organisation could direct users to more accessible versions of the content, there is no retroactive adjustment that an organisation could offer to recreate the opportunity missed by a disenfranchised user for engagement in the social aspect of that content publication.

Obviously, the accessibility of the social media platform itself is highly important to this interpretation, and I suggest that this is a shared responsibility by both the content publishing organisation as well as the social media platform as there are many possible accessibility failures that could contribute to the disenfranchisement of a user. Yes, if the platform itself is not navigable to assistive technology, for example the user cannot interact with, read or post comments, this would be the social media platform’s responsibility. But likewise, if a user cannot perceive the content because it does not have alternative text for an important image, or a lack of captions on a video, it is the content publishing organisation that is at fault and that user is now missing the context to be able to engage in the discourse, even if the platform itself was fully accessible.

While this is an untested interpretation, I believe this represents a logical breakdown of the reasoning surrounding appropriate reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act when it comes to social media content, which also aligns with the pragmatic expectation under PSBAR.

In summary of the two sections so far, I think the most appropriate course of action for any organisation, public sector body or otherwise, is to use whatever social media platforms best meets their communication needs and ensure that the content they create and publish to social media platforms is as accessible as they can make it (within the limitations of the platform).

Have a social media policy

Now that we have suggested that organisations should be ensuring the accessibility of their social media content, expected follow up considerations are surrounding member of staff accounts or accounts set up by members of staff to promote their affiliated groups but not centrally managed by an organisation comms team.

Our advice in this respect would be to consider what content staff are publishing and if they are doing it as an individual, or as a representative of an organisation. For example, if on their personal account they are haring inaccessible content not related to work or their organisation, then that is not the organisation’s responsibility. But if the member of staff is posting from an “official” account or acting in an “official capacity” as a representative of the organisation, for example posting content promoting something to do with their job, then that content should be accessible.

The way to manage these additional avenues is to have a clear social media policy which includes accessibility requirements and expected behaviours. You may decide to include our social media fundamentals and accessible social media content creation and posting checklists within your policy.

Having a clear policy on social media use by your staff not only enables you to promote expected accessibility practices but other social media behaviours about professional conduct, setting up of branded accounts etc.

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