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Opinion Block the vote: Should politicians be allowed to mute their constituents on social media?

Glynis Ratcliffe is the senior writer at Broadview magazine. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Chatelaine and The Walrus.

Like it or not, our social landscape is changing. The town square, where everyone gathered or came to air their gripes, is now social media. It’s where Canadians share news and where they go to complain, and when you combine the two, it becomes the way for us to communicate with politicians.

The problem is that many Canadian politicians haven’t yet decided whether they want to respond.

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The internet, and specifically social media, has long been a place people go for the anonymity. The trope of the guy who sits in his mother’s basement clad only in his underwear, typing angry threats to someone he doesn’t know, exists for a reason. We don’t really know who is behind unrecognizable and incongruous usernames when they demand a reply to their tweet. Is that a bot? A troll? Or is this a real constituent?

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I live in a fairly left-leaning neighbourhood of a traditionally conservative riding in Whitby, Ont. Recently, several of my neighbours openly questioned our MPP, Lorne Coe, on Facebook, when he posted messaging sponsored by the Progressive Conservative Party. A month ago, they noticed they can no longer comment on his posts. If this were our MPP’s private Facebook page, I could understand his choice to block whomever he wants from commenting, but this is his official account as a member of provincial Parliament. Should it be legal for an elected official to block their own constituents? I don’t think so, and I’m not alone.

In the United States, at both the federal and state level, the answer is a resounding “no.” In 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union took three governors from three different states – Maryland, Maine and Kentucky – to court over blocking social-media users and deleting their comments. While the ACLU’s case against Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin has now dragged on for nearly two years, the other two cases were successful, along with a host of related lawsuits in neighbouring states.

And most importantly, in the ruling of the Knight First Amendment Institute’s successful lawsuit against President Donald Trump, U.S. District Court Justice Naomi Reice Buchwald called Mr. Trump’s Twitter account a “public forum.” Essentially, she used the town-square analogy and made a federal ruling based around it. The Knight First Amendment Institute, part of Columbia University, represented six plaintiffs who claimed that Mr. Trump was violating their First Amendment rights by blocking them on Twitter.

Right now, there are Canadians wondering why the same isn’t happening to politicians here. On both Twitter and Facebook, there are complaints aplenty, and even a few hashtags devoted to specific federal, provincial and municipal politicians who frequently employ the block button.

When I asked Kerri Froc, assistant professor at the University of New Brunswick’s faculty of law, if someone might have a legal case against a politician for blocking them on social media, she explained it would depend on the focus of the lawsuit. The Canadian Constitution’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not have an exact match to the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. What works in one country won’t necessarily work in the other, despite politicians using social media in a similar way.

“If an individual is blocked on social media by a politician, a lot would depend on the politician’s role, in terms of whether the Charter would apply,” Prof. Froc said. “The bottom line is that the Charter applies only to actions of ‘government.’ This would obviously include the PM and government ministers. … It gets a bit dicier when you are talking about your average run-of-the-mill backbencher.”

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What I believe is that more and more Canadians are looking to the virtual space to express themselves to elected officials, and the Charter needs to reflect that.

On my social-media channels, in mid-June, I asked the question, “Has [a politician] blocked you on social media for some reason? I want to know who! Any province in Canada.” On Facebook, it was largely provincial politicians people complained about. On Twitter, however, I was quickly overwhelmed by the replies. Hundreds of people I didn’t know shared the tweet and hundreds more replied. Users from eight provinces (no territories) claimed to be blocked by a Canadian politician.

One former NDP MLA from Calgary, Michael Connolly, reached out to me, in response to my tweet, to explain why an elected official might choose to block users on social media. Mr. Connolly was among the first three openly LGBTQ MLAs to be elected in Alberta in 2015, making him a target for trolls on Twitter.

“For your own mental health, you don’t want to see things where people are threatening your life or the lives of your family,” he said. “I wouldn’t block people just for one or two tweets, but if they’re constantly, everyday, replying to every one of my tweets saying, ‘You’re a disgrace, you’re losing your job in a couple of days,’ I’d start by muting them.” But he soon learned it wasn’t enough and ended up blocking those types of Twitter users.

“I figure it’s a two-way street. If you’re going to be respectful, if you’re going to disagree with the person, that’s fine,” Mr. Connolly said. “But if you’re going to attack, and consistently attack that member, then I don’t think that you have the right to be on their Facebook page, or be on their Twitter. I think you’ve kind of given up that right.”

What he says makes absolute sense, but what about those of us trying to point out contradictions with actual facts in party-sponsored propaganda? It’s harder to get a straight answer to that question. When I found out my neighbour had been blocked by our MPP, Mr. Coe, on his Facebook page, I went to that page to ask why. While I wasn’t blocked myself, I didn’t receive an answer until I reached out both by phone and e-mail to let him know I was writing an article about politicians who block their constituents on social media, including him. His assistant replied via e-mail with a quoted response, from Mr. Coe:

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“While each member has their own approach to managing and engaging on social media, our first responsibility is to deliver for constituents. But, when an individual crosses the line with abusive or threatening language toward a member or their family, that is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

In contrast, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel, who has a hashtag, #BlockedByRempel, devoted to her abundant use of the block button on Twitter, was happy to explain her reasoning. “On one hand, people say, ‘Oh, politicians lack authenticity.’ Then, when somebody decides to personally manage one of their accounts, there’s an expectation,” of how to behave, she told me.

Ms. Rempel argued that she is still very accessible should she end up blocking a user on one particular social-media platform because they can still reach her through other means. In fact, three years ago, she posted a decision flow chart on how she chooses to engage with users on social media. It’s a commitment to transparency few politicians on social media are willing to make.

“I think social media is hugely useful,” she said, “but it’s incumbent upon all of us to manage ourselves and govern ourselves accordingly, as you would if you’re talking to somebody in the street or on the phone.”

As a woman with a public profile on social media, I find myself nodding in agreement with this sentiment. When then-Liberal Whitby MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes, now an Independent, tagged me on Twitter as the writer in a Q&A we did for the United Church Observer, I was shocked at the vitriol hurled at her, and me by association. Who would want to engage in that kind of toxicity?

Interestingly, Ms. Caesar-Chavannes herself says she doesn’t believe in blocking anyone on her Twitter feed. “We are paid by the people; people who love us, hate us, everything in between. So blocking them doesn’t make sense to me.” she said. “In my role as MP, on my Twitter account, it’s @MPCelina. It’s public, it’s theirs, it’s Canadians’.” She’s instructed the staff who manage her Facebook account to leave comments and commenters visible, as well.

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There’s a distinction that somehow needs to be made between the trolls and honest citizens trying to hold their elected officials to account. It’s one thing to block someone who replies to every single one of your tweets with “one-term MP!!” It’s an entirely different thing to block an elementary-school teacher who replies to the party-sponsored graphic you tweeted with a personal story about a student with autism who will suffer as a result of government funding cuts. Only one constitutes harassment.

Jody Wilson-Raybould, independent MP for Vancouver-Granville and former attorney-general, has a similar view to that of Ms. Caesar-Chavannes, despite recent months in the spotlight. Ms. Wilson-Raybould spoke out against the Trudeau government for putting pressure on her regarding her decision in the SNC-Lavalin case, and was ultimately ejected from the Liberal caucus. “I used to read some of the replies on Twitter, even before the SNC stuff started, and I found myself realizing it’s not healthy to read people’s responses, necessarily,” she said. “I’ve never blocked anybody, but I’ve muted people for foul language, for racist language, that type of thing.”

And, like Ms. Rempel, Ms. Wilson-Raybould is more than happy to engage with anyone who reaches out personally to communicate something – whether it’s positive or negative. In fact, all the politicians I have spoken to appear relieved when they’re able to put a real name or face to someone who has a complaint.

Cara Zwibel, director of the Fundamental Freedoms Program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, has been closely following, and more recently writing about, the topic of politicians blocking Canadians on social media, and she says she believes it might be a feasible claim in the courts, depending on the angle.

“It’s tricky because on the one hand, I understand that people sort of feel like, ‘It’s my Twitter or my Facebook page and I don’t need to provide people with that forum. They can do that somewhere else. I shouldn’t have to facilitate that sort of critical forum,’" she said.

Many of the elected officials who Twitter and Facebook users told me about seem to fall into this category, sharing party-sponsored messaging rather than engaging in thoughtful dialogue.

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“But I think that to a certain extent, you do have to take the good with the bad,” Ms. Zwibel said. “If you want a constituent to be able to interact with you and cheer you on in certain instances, or tell you that they’re pleased with what you’re doing, then you also have to accept that some people won’t feel that way and that they have just as much of a right to express it as anyone else.”

This is what it comes down to, for me. Yes, there’s a wide range of social-media use by Canadian politicians, from direct engagement to basically nothing at all. I don’t have a problem with my MPP if he doesn’t respond to my tweets because his assistant posts updates on his behalf. I have a problem if he blocks me because I disagree with him, or question the source of the statistics he posted. And I’m not the only one.

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