Politicians should not block citizens on Twitter
Blocking doesn't rid social media of toxic influences; all it does is prevent access to public information
Social media — specifically Twitter — is an important vehicle of modern-day political communication. Many politicians in Canada and around the world use the platform to share their work, to announce policies and to communicate directly with the public.
Just when many thought the platform was nearing its end, Twitter got a major relevancy shot thanks to President Donald Trump, who has taken to announcing significant policy changes in 140 characters first, before speaking with media outlets (and in some cases, members of his own administration). Social media has become an integral part of the way many of us get our information, and unlike cable, newspapers and some online news, it is practically free.
For these reasons, it should be of major concern that some elected officials are blocking individuals from accessing their public social media accounts.
British Columbia Civil Liberties Association
According to a report in HuffPost Canada, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association is looking into complaints by individuals who have been subject to those blocks from Canadian politicians.
The report names prominent elected officials such as deputy Conservative leader Lisa Raitt and former Tory leadership candidate Erin O'Toole, though politicians across all party lines have been accused of trying to shut out their critics on social media. Earlier this year, Toronto City Councillor Norm Kelly was called out for blocking his detractors after receiving criticism about his voting record and clothing line.
Abuse toward elected officials in the real world — that is, not on social media — is typically dealt with by outside agencies such as law enforcement. Occasionally, outside agencies will get involved in online cases where trolls are perceived to pose a legitimate physical threat — as was the case with a Toronto man found guilty of harassing a Conservative MP a couple of years ago — but for the most part, politicians are expected to fend for themselves.
Premier Kathleen Wynne bombarded on social media by homophobic, sexist abuse
CBC Marketplace: Canadians are becoming more intolerant online
There are many good reasons why politicians would block citizens on Twitter. Last year, many female politicians in Canada came forward to recite the vile tweets and online comments they often received from members of the public. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was and is among the most targeted of politicians, inundated with homophobic comments and threats of physical violence.
One thing we know about online harassment is that it is often gendered, as well as racialized. And while, in an ideal world, no politician should have to endure this form of abuse, we know that women most often have to grapple with these sorts of attacks.
That said, blocking does nothing to rid social media of toxic influences; all it does, really, is prevent access to public information — information that helps the public make informed decisions and live healthy and safe lives. Granted, anonymous Twitter users who spend their days sending hateful messages to politicians may not be too interested in the news of the day, but the point is that blocking affords politicians the power to pick and choose who can participate politically — the direct opposite of what it means to live in a democracy.
Furthermore, aside from the obvious definitions of abuse and harassment, the appropriateness of online behaviour is subjective. Who decides what constitutes reasonable dissent or policy critique, and what amounts to abuse? In the absence of clear guidelines, public accounts of elected officials should be treated as such: public.
There are other options beyond blocking available to politicians who feel attacked on Twitter. They can mute accounts, shielding themselves from hateful comments while not blocking users' access to information. There's the option to report questionable or problematic behaviour to online resources such as the Twitter Help Centre, which would eliminate the self-selecting nature of blocking. Doing so places emphasis on the behaviour as it relates to the platform's usage policies, rather than on the personalized relationship a politician may have with that particular user. And of course, if need be, law enforcement and legal services should get involved.
Twitter users can definitely be a rowdy bunch, but without clear rules, any one of us could be blocked for using "undesirable" language or statements. In the era of 24/7 news, social media is the machine that keeps politicans relevant and connected to the public. Blocking online access to public officials runs contrary to a public office holder's commitment to communicate effectively, efficiently and most importantly — democratically.
This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.