Public Officials Can't Block Twitter Accounts (Contributed)

The courts have ruled that access to a public figure's social media is a constitutional right. So, why is this mayor blocking me from his Twitter account?

by / September 21, 2018
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Despite how you may feel when you open your Twitter feed these days, I still believe social media is an essential tool for government communication. 

Today, government agencies at every level have the chance to engage in a more complex social media landscape than ever, one in which their presence is expected. Simply being there creates the impression that the agency intends to be accessible. That’s where some are running into trouble. Twitter’s “block” feature is an important tool designed to help protect users from harassment; but some are using it instead to quiet political dissent.

This spring, a federal court ruled that government agencies that block on social media have violated the First Amendment. In the case against President Trump brought by a group of blocked users, Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald called Twitter a “designated public forum,” and that blocking constitutes “viewpoint discrimination.”

When I helped launch Boston’s first mayoral Twitter presence in 2008, we built our program on a platform of access and transparency. Naturally, I’ve followed these court cases closely. That’s why I was surprised to end up blocked myself — by the mayor of my own hometown. 

Allan Fung is the Republican mayor of Cranston, R.I., who is now attempting his second bid for state governor, against Democratic incumbent Gina Raimondo. If he were to win the election, his policies would impact my family, including a close member who battles multiple sclerosis. So, it seemed reasonable to head to Twitter and ask him about his health-care policy via the account he uses for both city government and his campaign. That day, and for many days to come, I never received an answer. Last week, I discovered that @MayorFung’s account had blocked me.

When we were building the city of Boston’s social media strategy, block lists were no more a concern than late-night presidential Twitter sprees. We were ready to open the doors. I was following the mantra of then-Mayor Tom Menino’s constituent service mission: “Go where they are.” Until then, that meant public meetings, doorsteps and barbecues. And then, the digital arena. In the year following the 2013 Boston Marathon, we watched our digital community double.

The first Boston social media policy kicked off by stating our mission: ‘to embrace social media as a tool for education, access, engagement and transparency.’ It is, after all, your government. Everyone was welcome, as long as you weren’t abusive or a bot gone phishin'. And, while we recognized that running for office is an inherent part of serving in office, city employees should respect a strict firewall between government and campaign communication. 

When I tweeted at Mayor Fung, I did so seeking to learn more about his future policies, and how they might affect my family. In the days since I’ve been blocked, it’s clear what else is sacrificed when a government account blocks a member of the public: access to rapid response information during emergencies, which is now a standard function of Twitter. What if I were unable to monitor Twitter for my family during a crisis? Mayor Fung’s block silences me in his mentions, which serves a political purpose; but politics aside, this cuts off my ability to share timely city updates with my family. 

Representatives of elected officials and public agencies should attempt to steer clear of the federal decision precedent by following these steps for government accounts:

  • Check and clear your block list by visiting this link while logged into your account.
  • Twitter’s mute feature can minimize repeat tweets, while preserving public access to information. It’s still best practice to monitor and reply to questions in order to build strong, trusting constituent relationships. 
  • Draft and codify an agency social media policy — in coordination with your archive and legal teams — which standardizes comment/reply management, including team responsibilities and archive practice.
  • Use separate accounts to conduct government business and campaign communications.

When we speak of a government by the people and for the people, I believe that includes government Twitter feeds, and this spring, a federal judge agreed. 

I’ve filed a public record request in Rhode Island in order to discover the full scope of Mayor Fung’s blocking practice, and its impact on local citizens cut off from their digital city services. Mayor Fung is a public supporter of President Trump, but all elected officials, no matter their politics, will be wise to avoid emulating Trump’s Twitter habits. 

Lindsay Crudele GovTech Contributor

Lindsay Crudele is a digital strategist focused on community impact. She founded and directed the city of Boston’s award-winning digital engagement program. Today, she runs Crudele Digital, a strategy consultancy dedicated to equity, opportunity and sustainability.

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