Professor William H. Dutton
Senior Fellow, Advisory Board Member
Bill Dutton was the OII’s Founding Director, a Fellow of Balliol College and the first Professor of Internet Studies at Oxford University.
An interesting debate has been opened up by lawyers who have argued that President Trump should not block Twitter users from posting on Twitter. I assume this issue concerns his account @realDonaldTrump (32M followers) but the same issue would arise over his newer and official account as President @realDonaldTrump (almost 19M followers).
Apparently, the President has blocked users who may have made rude or critical comments to one or more of his Twitter posts. Regardless of the specifics of Donald Trump’s tweets, and specific individuals blocked, the general question is: Should any American politician who tweets be able to block any user without violating the user’s first amendment rights? I would say, yes, but others, including the lawyers posing this question, would disagree.
I would think that any user has a right to block any other user, particularly if they appear to be a malicious user, bot, or simply obnoxious. I’d argue this on the basis that these are the affordances of Twitter, and the rules of the site are – or should be – known by users. Moreover, the potential for blocking is a means of maintaining some level of civility on one’s social media. Having rude or obnoxious users posting harassing comments could frighten other users off the site, and thereby undermine a space for dialogue and the provision of information. If there is no way for a social media site to moderate its users, its very survival is at risk.
I actually argued this in the mid-1990s, when the issue surrounded electronic bulletin boards, and some of the first public forums, such as Santa Monica, California’s Public Electronic Network (PEN).* Essentially, I maintained that any democratic forum is governed by rules, such as Robert’s Rules of Order for many face-to-face meetings. Such rules evolved in response to difficulties in conducting meeting without rules. Some people will speak too long and not take turns. Some will insult or talk over the speaker. Democratic communication requires some rules, even thought this may sound somewhat ironic. As long as participants know the rules in advance, rules of order seem legitimate to enabling expression. Any rule suppresses some expression in order to enable more equitable, democratic access to a meeting. Obviously, limiting a tweet to 140 characters is a restriction on speech, but it has fostered a rich medium for political communication.
In this sense, blocking a Twitter user is a means for moderation, and if known in advance, and not used in an arbitrary or discriminatory way, it should be permitted. That said, I will post a Twitter poll and let you know what respondents believe. Bryan M. Sullivan (2017), an attorney, seems to argue a very different position in his Forbes article.** I respectively disagree, but wonder what the Twitter community thinks, while it is easy to guess that they will be on the side of not being blocked. But please think about it, before you decide.
*Dutton, W. H. (1996), ‘Network Rules of Order: Regulating Speech in Public Electronic Fora,’ Media, Culture, and Society, 18 (2), 269-90. Reprinted in David, M., and Millward, P. (2014) (eds), Researching Society Online. (London: Sage), pp. 269-90.
**Sullivan, B. (2017), ‘Blocked by the President: Are Trump’s Twitter Practices Violating Free Speech?’, Forbes, available here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/legalentertainment/2017/06/08/blocked-by-the-president-are-trumps-twitter-practices-violating-free-speech/#40fe73043d57