Can a president block citizens on social networks?

A group of US citizens who have been blocked on the personal Twitter account of US President Donald Trump have filed a lawsuit against him via the Knight First Amendment Institute, a Columbia University center created to defend freedom of expression and the press in the digital age.

The lawsuit asserts that the Twitter account of the President of the United States is, as such, a public forum and an official voice of the president to discuss important issues (even though we are referring to Trump’s personal Twitter account, not to the official, presidential one), and as such, they cannot be excluded from it, despite having previously expressed their disagreement about his policies on it. The decision to prevent them from accessing the account is being interpreted as a way to eliminate voices critical of the president, and therefore, a threat to freedom of expression.

The case is not simply an attempt to attack a president already under criticism from every angle, and has more substance than it seems: this is about the use of the social networks as a form of political communication, now the norm in a large number of countries. In this case, in addition, we are talking about a president who has taken the decision to hardly use the official presidential account, @POTUS, which has 19.3 million followers, instead preferring to use his personal, @realDonaldTrump, which has 33.7 million followers. This is not, of course, the first time Donald Trump’s use of Twitter has raised controversy: in February, the president used a retweet from the institutional account to tell the world that his daughter’s fashion collection had been excluded from some US department stores, a totally private issue on a totally private interest.

The lawsuit brought by the Knight Center focuses on key issues related to political dialogue: sadly, blocking somebody from Twitter is the norm these days, typically a response to insults or comments interpreted as critical or annoying by an account holder. But one thing is you or me blocking somebody from our Twitter account, and quite another is when the head of a state or a government does so, even if they argue that it is their personal account, especially in this case, when that account is used to set the political agenda.

Of course, Trump’s lawyers could argue that it is still possible to access Trump’s account, and thus what he has to say, from a different browser not associated with their Twitter account, meaning that the block is simply a way of preventing certain people who might have used or who might use insulting language.

That said, given the way freedom of expression is interpreted in political life in the United States, the counter argument could be that by blocking those accounts, the president would effectively be preventing the participation of people who have proven to be critical of his presidency, and who would not be able to mention his account in their responses (they could refer to the president by name or other variations, but would not reach anything like the same number of people). In the absence of proof that the people who were being blocked from accessing the president’s account had been found to have indulged in defamation, libel, threats or other offenses, it seems unlikely that a court would be inclined to agree with the president.

What rights does a president have, then, over his or her Twitter, Facebook or other social network accounts when the public criticizes him or her on them, which people may well do systematically, of course, taking advantage of such presidential accounts to give themselves greater visibiilty? Is political dialogue an environment in which “anything goes”, provided it does not violate the law? We are talking here about something that is habitual in many countries: Twitter is increasingly used as part of political dialogue. Then there is the question of the rules that should govern debate, as well as what should or should not be allowed to be said as part of the cut and thrust of politics, along with how voters themselves communicate with each other and organize themselves; voters who are now equipped with mechanisms to express their opinion directly, and of course how those elected to govern them should behave on the social networks. These are rules that have been developed as the social networks have become more popular and that so far, no one has bothered to regulate or establish rules and guidelines for, and that possibly need defining, or at the very least, should be the subject of a serious and informed discussion.

(En español, aquí)

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