Jim Watson, the incumbent mayor of Ottawa and candidate for re-election on Monday, said this week he is looking forward to going to court to defend his right to block people from seeing his Twitter account.
“I have the right not to be attacked and harassed by the same individuals on a regular basis,” he said. He also said his Twitter account is a personal one and that he alone gets to decide who can see his tweets and replies, and who can’t.
Mr. Watson is quite wrong about this. He should stop blocking his critics and instead learn to use Twitter’s “mute" function, which allows muted people to see his posts but hides their responses, or anything else they post, from his view. He may also want to re-examine what it means to be “attacked and harassed” on Twitter.
But it is also true that this is still new territory for most politicians. Social media have opened up new channels for citizens to engage with elected officials, and vice versa. One politician’s overreaction should be seen in the light of people feeling their way through unfamiliar territory for which no rules have been established.
In Mr. Watson’s case, the three Ottawa residents who are asking a court to declare that he is infringing on their freedom of expression by blocking their access to his tweets, and thereby preventing them from commenting on them, can’t be lumped in with the type of abusive, and usually anonymous, trolls who so richly deserve to be blocked.
Their crime instead appears to be that they have voiced doubts about Mr. Watson’s policies on a fairly regular basis – often enough, anyway, to catch the mayor’s attention and make him feel “attacked and harassed.”
He is being too sensitive. The three are all activists with an agenda, but they do not use profanities or make the kinds of vile threats that female politicians too often have to put up with. Nothing the three have posted comes anywhere near the level of harassment and abuse that any reasonable person would agree was deserving of censure.
Mr. Watson is also wrong when he says his Twitter account is a personal one. That’s just not true – even if he is the only person operating it, as appears to be the case. The account is being used by the elected chief executive of Ottawa to sell his election platform, to campaign, to announce events he will attend as mayor, to cheerlead for himself and to communicate vital information to city residents.
His posts are done on the public dime during working hours and inherently reflect the office that he holds; he cannot pick and choose which of the city’s taxpayers are agreeable enough to merit the privilege of seeing them.
We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Any work-related social-media platform used by a member of a government executive should by default be considered a public forum, not a personal one. If someone posts a critical comment, or even 50 critical comments, they shouldn’t be censored.
Mr. Watson is, in fact, operating in a grey zone that allows him to mix election messaging in with pronouncements related to his office.
It’s wrong for elected officials to use public resources, such as government websites, to campaign for office. Too many try to get away with it anyway, and sometimes they get called out. But on Twitter, they have found an arena where there are no rules and no one is watching to make sure that, say, the feed of a premier, a cabinet minister or a mayor doesn’t devolve into electioneering or partisan name-calling as voting day approaches.
In the United States, President Donald Trump has turned the unhealthy mix of the public, the personal and the partisan into a twisted artform. His personal Twitter feed is filled with vile attacks on political opponents and outright lies about his accomplishments. (A U.S. federal judge ruled in May that Mr. Trump cannot block people who criticize him, saying his feed amounts to a public forum.)
Ottawa residents should be grateful that Mr. Watson keeps his Twitter feed cordial and upbeat, and that he doesn’t resort to sarcasm and personal attacks – a failing of far too many politicians in Canada these days.
But Mr. Watson should put an end to this needless court case. If he examines this objectively, he will see that he has gone too far. He really ought to just count himself lucky that he has a place where he can both directly communicate with constituents in his role as mayor and also actively campaign for their votes.