Recently there has been some activity surrounding who can be banned from online social media platforms. The debate around whether a private company like Facebook or Google can censor certain individuals or companies remains lively. Another take on this however has gotten less attention, that is, when can an elected representative censor someone on social media?
This has popped up a couple of times with Trump, who has a couple of occasions tried to remove critics from commenting on his twitter feed. A new court ruling judged that to remove critics from the feed had violated the poster’s 1st amendment rights. The spirit of these rulings is that public officials, working at the pleasure of the taxpayer, should not be able to impede public debate – no matter how ugly it gets. Obviously Trump is the most high profile case of this happening, but is far from the only perpetrator.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is also being sued by two people on the basis that she blocked them on twitter. AOC tweets from both a public account and a private account, complicating the situation potentially from a free speech perspective. She could simply stop tweeting on her public account and tweet exclusively on her private account, which I’m not sure is good for anyone.
An alternative to blocking disruptive followers is to simply sue them, as Devin Nunes has done earlier this year. Citing defamation as the standing for the lawsuit, Nunes points to three followers for attacks“no human being should ever have to bear and suffer in their whole life.” Part of these attacks include a satire profile created as a parody of Nunes.
What links these three cases is a new phenomenon of digital democracy. Comments normally reserved for private banter are thrust into the limelight, and public officials, even the president, don’t like it. Social media is a medium of exchange where you can say things “directly” to an official that you could or would never say to them face-to-face. It is a superficial catharsis, which incidentally reaches millions of people. Words certainly have the power to win hearts and minds, but at what level of efficacy do these attacks really impact their recipient, and more importantly, the peanut gallery?
Robust political debate is a valuable pillar in our public life. Social media allows for expression of thought and speech that normally wouldn’t happen without it. The intersection of these two forces has yet to be mediated. I don’t know how much anyone gains from calling Trump a doody-headed orange clown. What IS important is an incisive criticism of his foreign policy, backed by sources and evidence. There is no filtering mechanism that will please everyone, and there are lines still being drawn.