On Twitter, users have the option of blocking other users, which prevents them from viewing the blocker’s tweets, getting notified when they tweet, and participating in the comment thread below the blocker’s tweets. Apparently, Donald Trump’s Twitter account has started blocking people who criticize him. As of yesterday, I’m one of those people.
Yesterday, the Knight First Amendment Institute, a new outfit with a hefty endowment at Columbia University, sent a letter to the President outlining why this practice violates the First Amendment and demanding that he unblock users. You can read the letter here, but the gist of it is that the President’s account operates as a “designated public forum” for the federal govnernment and that suppressing speech on the basis of people’s political beliefs in that context is illegal. (See coverage here and here, and an argument against this logic here.)
Here is Trump spokesperson Sean Spicer explaining that Trump’s tweets are “official statements by the President of the United States”:
My case illustrates how Trump created a public forum, used for official purposes, and then excluded me from participating in that forum on the basis of my political opinions.
When Trump was elected I made a case for “drawing a new line through the political landscape: for versus against Trumpism,” and oriented my political activity as a citizen accordingly. It turns out that the most efficient way I could get this message out was in the Trump threads on Twitter, by making simple memes stating opposition to Trump or mocking him. It’s not a sophisticated operation, but it didn’t take up very much of my time, and for the effort I think it had good results. (Maybe because my Twitter identity is “verified” or I have a relatively large number of followers, my tweets seemed to appear near the top of the thread if I posted them promptly.)
And I discovered that the Trump Twitter threads are a place to meet and argue with real people, strangers from other bubbles, about the most pressing issues of the day. Sure, most of the dialogue is pointless shouting and insults, which I am naturally way above, but not all of it, and for every person shouting there are many people reading along, who may be influenced by what they see. (For example, think of the young people living in Trump families described so well by Amy Harmon.)
My memes and statements were viewed by hundreds of thousands of people, according to Twitter’s analytics, often appearing right below a Trump tweet. Clearly, this is not what the President wants, but just as clearly it is one small part of how democracy works these days. Here are a few examples of images I made and posted, or comments, with links for people who aren’t blocked so you can see them, screen images to avoid that (if you follow the links you can see the discussion in the threads).
From June 4:
From June 3:
From June 6:
From June 2:
From May 31:
From May 28:
From May 18:
From May 16:
From May 13:
From May 7:
You get the idea. Maybe putting up these memes feels like carrying a sign at a protest, but in this case it’s a political forum organized by the President and limited to those he selects based on their political statements. I don’t know how this legal argument will fare in the courts, if it gets there, but in this case as in so many others, his actions are bad for democracy.