Social Media and Political Activities

October 2013 | Natasha Smith

( Disponible en anglais seulement )

Statistics show that Canadians are one of the most regular users of social media, with two out of every three Canadians using some form of social media.  Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin hold the top three spots for Canadian social networking, with over half of the entire Canadian population using Facebook specifically.

How Are Registered Charities Using Social Media?

Social media is an inexpensive tool through which charities can communicate directly with the public.  Whether it is soliciting for donations, calling for volunteers or informing the public of news and upcoming events, charities that designate some of their resources to social media are provided with far and wide reaching platforms through which to communicate. In constantly striving to achieve their purposes, charitable organizations may view social media platforms as a good way to gather feedback from the public about what is working for their organization and what is not.  Furthermore, provided that it is subordinate and ancillary to the charity’s purpose, registered charities may view social media as an efficient and effective way to engage in permitted political activities such as a political call to action or representation of the organization’s stance on a law, policy or decision of any level of government.

2012 Budget: Crackdown on Political Activity

As discussed in our March 2012 Newsletter, in the 2012 Budget, the Government announced that it would be paying more attention to registered charities and the ways and frequency in which they engage in political activities.  Specifically, the government announced that it would provide $8 million toward increased education and monitoring of registered charities by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) with respect to political activities.

As a way to increase the transparency of charitable organizations, the CRA now requires more information about each charity’s political activities.  On January 24, 2013, the CRA issued a revised T3010 Registered Charity Information Return and updated its schedules and forms.  One of the most significant changes was the re-introduction (since 2002) of a political activities schedule.  The new Schedule 7 requires that a registered charity:

1. Describe its political activities and how such activities relate to its charitable purpose;
2. Identify the various ways in which the charity participated or carried out its political activities; and
3. Indicate the amount of funding received from outside of Canada to fund its political activities.

In reporting the political activities engaged in by a charity, the Schedule provides a list of activities for the charity to consider, including “Internet”.  Websites and social media are suggested as some of the possible mediums through which registered charities may engage in Internet-related activity.  As a result of these new reporting obligations, registered charities need to be increasingly concerned with the content of their internet presence and, specifically, the way in which they use social media.  As they begin to utilize relatively new mediums to achieve their purposes, registered charities must always ensure that they maintain compliance with their obligations under the Income Tax Act (“ITA”) so as to avoid sanctions, which can include revocation of their charitable status.

Income Tax Act and Political Activities

Under the ITA, Canadian registered charities are limited in the amount and scope of the political activities in which they engage.  Specifically, a registered charity’s political activities must be,

(a)  non-partisan (do not include the direct or indirect support, or opposition, of any political party or candidate);
(b)  ancillary and incidental to its charitable purposes; and
(c) generally limited to 10% or less of its annual total resources.

For a more detailed description of the ITA restrictions on political activities, see our previous article wherein we discuss CRA Policy Statement CPS-022, “CRA’s Guidance on Political Activities” and some of the resources provided by CRA to help charities understand these rules.

Social Media and the Risk of Engaging in Prohibited Political Activities

Charities using social media must ensure they understand the risks involved.  The wide-open nature and largely unregulated environment of social media platforms invites unsolicited public commentary that once seen, may be copied and re-posted without permission and out of context.  Individuals external to the charity may post political comments on blogs or tweet a comment and attribute it to a charity.  Without proper monitoring, blog posts and public replies/comments thereto, could cause an organization’s purposes to be misinterpreted by readers resulting in a potential loss of goodwill. If read and misinterpreted by CRA, it could result in possible sanctions if it appears to reveal non-compliance with the ITA.

If the individual responsible for maintaining a charitable organization’s blog, for instance, posts his/her personal opinions with respect to a political party or candidate, the organization may risk being found by CRA to be engaging in partisan political activity.  If it exceeds the limit on allowable political activities, an organization may also be found to be in contravention of the ITA.  Moreover, if an organization compensates an individual to monitor and post to its Twitter account and the posts contain political content, the organization must allocate part of this salary to its allowable expenditure limit for political activities.

Tips To Ensure Compliance When Using Social Media

  1. Consider developing a Social Media Policy that addresses issues such as:
(a) Appropriate content;
(b) Frequency of posts;
(c) Time and attention spent posting;
(d) When to delete certain comments;
(e) Designation of a trusted individual(s) to post and monitor posts; and
(f) Repercussions for linking or associating the organization to an individual’s personal blog or other social media account (whether politically-charged or otherwise).

2.  Educate employees and volunteers on:

(a) What is considered prohibited versus permitted political activity;
(b) The impact on the organization of improper use of the organization’s social media accounts;
(c) The organization’s charitable purpose and overall mission; and
(d) Their right to participate politically in their personal capacity, but not as representatives of the organization.

3.  Consider posting a disclaimer with respect to content posted by others on the organization’s website, blog, Facebook, Twitter, or other social media account as not being the views of the organization.

Lawyers in the Charities and Not-For-Profit Group can help a charity to develop social media policies and ensure that any political activities comply with the law.

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