When Chris Christie leaves office at noon today, he takes with him nearly a million Twitter followers built at taxpayer expense.
Christie’s account, @GovChristie, was opened in November 2009 by his transition staff, who were working on the state payroll, using a government-owned device. For eight years, Christie’s staff has cultivated a substantial online presence that was paid for with public funds.
Some insiders believe any taxpayer-funded work product is the property of the state, but since this is a modern transition issue, no one I’ve spoken with has a clear answer. It’s clear that a Governor can’t walk out of the office with his television or his computer, but property like social media accounts is far more confusing.
Christie’s use of social media helped establish him as a national political figure. That was not accidental. The Maria Comella-run communications team devoted considerable resources to enhance Christie’s online presence. They even hired Patrick Jones, a social media expert, to work the Twitter account – his $60,000 salary created headlines like “Gov hires personal Twitterer” in the Asbury Park Press.
Christie’s official YouTube channel has 7,390 subscribers (and millions of views) and his Facebook page has 241,290 followers. The exact number of Twitter followers, as of early this morning, was 938,454. His Twitter account says that it is the “Official Account of the 55th Governor of New Jersey” and lists his state website, nj.gov/governor. A February story in the APP reported Christie as having 1,052 Twitter followers.
Who owns Christie’s Twitter account – Christie, or the State of New Jersey? With social media law still developing and litigation over ownership still in its infancy, this issue has not been fully addressed. The question of who owns a semi-governmental Twitter account is still a gray area. I’m told there are some legal issues involved. New Jersey law has specific guidelines for records retention, including electronic communications.
One example: a document is considered unavailable to the public in an OPRA request must still be retained under the state’s document retention laws.
The New Jersey State Archives does not have the technological ability to retain electronic records. The purchase of software to address that was not approved during the Christie administration.
It’s not clear if Tweets are considered public records. If they are, I’m told that they must be archived. Since Christie is really New Jersey’s first social media Governor, this is about as murky at Title 19.
The only real precedent came with the presidential transition last year. The President’s official Twitter account, @POTUS, was transferred from Barack Obama to Donald Trump immediately after the inauguration. The @POTUS account, opened after Obama became president, was transformed into an archived account, @POTUS44. The Trump White House assumed the Twitter handle, but not Obama’s 13.7 million followers. This number was reset to zero and rebuilt by the new administration and is now at 21.8 million.
The National Archives and Records Administration is an independent authority, while the state agencies charged with preserving records still fall under the purview of the Governor.
Some states, like North Carolina, already consider Tweets as part of the official record.
In Virginia, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe has not used his official Twitter account since his term expired this week. The new Governor, Ralph Northam, has launched his own account.
The incoming Governor, Phil Murphy, launched his official Twitter account, @GovMurphy, last week. He now has 4,744 followers.