Should Tweeting Politicians be able to Block Users?

An interesting debate has been opened up by lawyers who have argued that President Trump should not block Twitter users from posting on Twitter. I assume this issue concerns his account @realDonaldTrump (32M followers) but the same issue would arise over his newer and official account as President @realDonaldTrump (almost 19M followers).

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Apparently, the President has blocked users who may have made rude or critical comments to one or more of his Twitter posts. Regardless of the specifics of Donald Trump’s tweets, and specific individuals blocked, the general question is: Should any American politician who tweets be able to block any user without violating the user’s first amendment rights? I would say, yes, but others, including the lawyers posing this question, would disagree.

I would think that any user has a right to block any other user, particularly if they appear to be a malicious user, bot, or simply obnoxious. I’d argue this on the basis that these are the affordances of Twitter, and the rules of the site are – or should be – known by users. Moreover, the potential for blocking is a means of maintaining some level of civility on one’s social media. Having rude or obnoxious users posting harassing comments could frighten other users off the site, and thereby undermine a space for dialogue and the provision of information. If there is no way for a social media site to moderate its users, its very survival is at risk.

I actually argued this in the mid-1990s, when the issue surrounded electronic bulletin boards, and some of the first public forums, such as Santa Monica, California’s Public Electronic Network (PEN).* Essentially, I maintained that any democratic forum is governed by rules, such as Robert’s Rules of Order for many face-to-face meetings. Such rules evolved in response to difficulties in conducting meeting without rules. Some people will speak too long and not take turns. Some will insult or talk over the speaker. Democratic communication requires some rules, even thought this may sound somewhat ironic. As long as participants know the rules in advance, rules of order seem legitimate to enabling expression. Any rule suppresses some expression in order to enable more equitable, democratic access to a meeting. Obviously, limiting a tweet to 140 characters is a restriction on speech, but it has fostered a rich medium for political communication.

In this sense, blocking a Twitter user is a means for moderation, and if known in advance, and not used in an arbitrary or discriminatory way, it should be permitted. That said, I will post a Twitter poll and let you know what respondents believe. Bryan M. Sullivan (2017), an attorney, seems to argue a very different position in his Forbes article.** I respectively disagree, but wonder what the Twitter community thinks, while it is easy to guess that they will be on the side of not being blocked. But please think about it, before you decide.

Reference

*Dutton, W. H. (1996), ‘Network Rules of Order: Regulating Speech in Public Electronic Fora,’ Media, Culture, and Society, 18 (2), 269-90. Reprinted in David, M., and Millward, P. (2014) (eds), Researching Society Online. (London: Sage), pp. 269-90.

**Sullivan, B. (2017), ‘Blocked by the President: Are Trump’s Twitter Practices Violating Free Speech?’, Forbes, available here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/legalentertainment/2017/06/08/blocked-by-the-president-are-trumps-twitter-practices-violating-free-speech/#40fe73043d57

The Real Parallel to Donald Trump is not Bernie Sanders: Its Hillary

Time and again, pundits draw parallels between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as the non-establishment, populist candidates. It is a very weak analogy – actually wrong. Senator Sanders has been in office for over thirty years. Both are popular among a segment of the general electorate, including independents, but popularity does not make them ‘populist’ candidates in any serious use of that term. It is amazing that this parallel keeps getting repeated, although it is apparent as a means to undermine the credibility of the candidates.

What is more amazing is that no one draws the real parallels between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Think about it: Hillary in politics is the political equivalent of Donald in business. Its obvious. For example, consider the following:

Donald Trump’s candidacy is based on his experience in business. Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is based on her experience in politics. Note that Trump’s success in business is contested, as is Hillary’s in politics, such as in voting for the Iraq war.

Donald Trump’s message is ‘making American great again’, while Hillary Clinton’s is ‘keeping America great’. One is pessimistic about the current directions of American policy and leadership. The other is optimistic. Likewise, both candidates anchor their policies around the Obama Administration. Hillary mainly defends and aligns with President Obama, while Donald Trump takes a critical perspective on most of the President’s policy decisions. They are the flip sides of the same coin.

The public feels like they know Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. It is well known that one of the major factors that shape how people vote is whether a person feels like they know the candidate. This psychological dimension was part of the dynamic behind the success of Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and other stars who have gone into politics. Donald Trump is known from reality television; Hillary is known from her years in the public eye as First Lady, Senator and Secretary. Bernie is relatively unknown, and increasingly liked as he has come into the public eye.

Donald is relatively new to public policy, while Hillary is steeped in policy – often called a ‘policy wonk’, but neither has a systematic framework or what some have called a ‘big idea’. Both develop policies that are responsive or at least appealing to their respective constituencies. In this respect, both candidates are more ‘whack a mole’ problem-solvers than driven by a core ideology or core idea. Those who follow them just believe their experience in business or politics, respectively, will lead them to the right solution.

This is one factor that dramatically differentiates Bernie Sanders from both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton: Bernie has a big idea, which drives his positions on other policies and solutions to a wide range of problems. This even gives him problems when responding to ad hoc questions and issues. He has to think about how such issues resonate with his core ideas.

I could go on, but if you consider real comparisons of the candidates, and don’t uncritically accept the imgrespronouncements of pundits, you might well see that Hillary Clinton is a mirror image of Donald Trump. Bernie Sanders is not the Donald Trump of the Democratic Party. I know it is heretical, but it is Hillary!