Should journalists be allowed to block people on social media?

Does the title question sound completely absurd to you? Perhaps, but when placed in context with the current debate over whether or not government officials and agencies can legally block followers on Twitter and other social media outlets perhaps it shouldn’t be.

I was reading a piece at NextGov this morning which offers advice as to how government agencies can “protect their social media accounts and their employees” when the question sprung to mind. They begin by citing a number of examples of official government accounts which have been the subject of complaints or even lawsuits in this regard. These include Matt Bevin, the Michigan State Government and the El Paso Police Department. They also note the recent case where a federal judge ruled against a Virginia official who deleted a Facebook post. (I already wrote about how insane that sounded to me.)

The granddaddy of all these cases is, of course, the pending lawsuit against the President which claims that he shouldn’t be able to block people on Twitter. The loudest cries on this score come from journalists who claim that this action somehow damages their mission under the First Amendment. NextGov specifies some steps that government agencies should take to “protect” themselves.

Instead of banning employee activity outright, agencies should outline proper rules of engagement at all levels of government. These rules should cover things like when and how to engage with the public, and how to respond to negative posts or complaints.

The rules of engagement should be communicated in mandatory training sessions for all staff. Special social media training should be developed for senior officials with online public personas—similar to the traditional media training that these officials receive.

In addition, there are some excellent online social media training courses and many of them are free of charge. Agencies should research the most applicable ones and encourage employees to complete any that make sense for their roles.

As absurd as it sounds, if we’re going to forbid government entities from blocking anyone on Twitter, including even the most abusive trolls who flood their timelines and mention columns with insults and harassment, then what about the journalists who cover these government actors? They put forth endless, passionate complaints about the sanctity of the Fourth Estate and the vital role it plays in the health of the nation. They’re arguing that blockage damages the freedom of the press, but there is no point in having a free press unless they are disseminating the information they collect to the public. And if social media outlets such as Twitter are now apparently a “right” which everyone has, how do we justify blocking access to that Fourth Estate by interested citizens?

Let’s take one high profile media figure as an example. Jonathan Capehart is probably one of the most prolific blockers of Twitter users that I encounter on a regular basis. He seems to take great joy in retweeting the trolls who snipe at him, announcing that they are “dismissed” or some similar term as he banishes them to the dungeon of the blocked. But he’s a member of the editorial board at the Washington Post, arguably one of the top two most widely read and influential American newspapers. What of all the people who can no longer partake in his wisdom or follow the dozens of links he posts to various bits of content every day? Are they not being deprived of their chance to fully participate in the public debate? The WaPo has adopted the tagline, “Democracy Dies in Darkness” but Jonathan surely seems to have banished his fair share of readers to the dark.

I point all of this out not to ask the government to intervene and force all journalists to unblock everyone, but to point out the absurdness of doing the same thing to government entities. Jonathan Capehart draws a huge army of trolls and I’ve seen the deranged comments from many of his most abusive (and frequently racist) respondents. It requires very little imagination to picture the flood of abuse unleashed on the @realDonaldTrump account and those of many other elected officials and agencies. (I asked Jonathan for a comment to use in this piece but didn’t hear back from him prior to publication. If he sends me something I’ll include it as an update.)

Why shouldn’t any of them be able to block trolls? I was trying to think of some examples of journalists blocking me and the closest I could come was DeRay Mckesson. (I know, he’s not technically a journalist but he writes a lot of op-eds and has certainly been a candidate for elected office.) I suppose he didn’t like some of the articles I published about him. But the point is, he should be able to block me if that suits him. I don’t actually remember the last time I blocked anyone (I use the mute function for seriously persistent pests) but I’m sure I have at some point in the past.

The point is, we’re talking about social media platforms, not the entire universe of speech and communications. There may not even be a Twitter or Facebook ten years from now. The normal channels for contacting or hearing from elected officials, journalists and even annoying bloggers are still available as they always have been. Do we really want the government regulating how any of them can use their Twitter accounts? And if so, who shall the courts regulate next? What’s good for the goose, as the saying goes.

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