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Being blocked on Twitter is not a violation of your rights

Click to play video: 'Ottawa mayor sued for blocking residents on Twitter' Ottawa mayor sued for blocking residents on Twitter
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson is facing a lawsuit from three constituents who claim they're being blocked by him on Twitter. They say that's a violation of their charter rights to free speech. As Mike Le Couteur reports, the ruling could change how politicians interact with voters for years to come – Oct 18, 2018

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has a considerable following on Twitter (over 4.3 million), there are still far more Canadians who do not follow him than who do. Those other Canadians simply choose to follow different people on Twitter or they simply avoid Twitter altogether.

Following Trudeau or any other politician on Twitter is not a gateway to a higher plane of Canadian democracy. It’s just following tweets from politicians — or, more likely, the social media staffers of politicians. Conversely, those missing out on such tweets are not being disenfranchised or marginalized in any way.

READ MORE: Three launch Charter challenge against Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson over Twitter blocking

A trio of political activists in Ottawa, however, believe that nothing less than their Charter rights are at stake as a result of being blocked on Twitter by that city’s mayor, Jim Watson. They filed their application earlier this week, which appears to be the first such challenge in Canada. A similar challenge was launched in the U.S. concerning Donald Trump’s penchant for the block button.

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It is better to have politicians using social media than avoiding it. As such, it would be preferable not to have politicians blocking users. Blocking may be rude and it may be petty, but it’s a real stretch to suggest that it constitutes a violation of anyone’s Charter rights.

While I myself am an avid user of Twitter, I do not follow Trudeau (or Watson, for that matter). I don’t get the sense that I’m missing much, but I can always drop in on his Twitter page if I’m curious to see whether he’s tweeted anything important.

READ: Twitter shuts down hundreds of suspected bots which shared pro-Saudi views on Jamal Khashoggi

I have no idea whether there are any Twitter users blocked from or muted by Trudeau’s account. I can imagine that there are a great many Trudeau detractors on social media who aren’t shy about voicing their displeasure. Indeed, there are undoubtedly politicians of all stripes who face a torrent of venomous tweets on a regular basis (to disturbing degrees, in some cases). Blocking or muting people for that reason seems totally reasonable.

Some politicians have thicker skins than others. I’m not aware that I’ve been blocked by any politicians (I’m usually quite genial in my Twitter interactions), but if I woke up tomorrow and noticed that the prime minister had blocked me, I’d probably be more bemused than anything. Some people might even take it as a badge of honour.

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Ultimately, the Twitter feed of any politician is nothing more than a website. Even if you’re not a registered Twitter user, you can simply go to twitter.com/JustinTrudeau to see the prime minister’s tweets for yourself. Anyone blocked by Trudeau could type in the same URL (provided they’re not logged into Twitter) and see the same tweets. Short of blocking access to the internet, politicians can’t keep people from seeing their tweets.

WATCH BELOW: Ottawa mayor sued for blocking residents on Twitter

Click to play video: 'Ottawa mayor sued for blocking residents on Twitter' Ottawa mayor sued for blocking residents on Twitter
Ottawa mayor sued for blocking residents on Twitter – Oct 18, 2018

Ah, but it’s not just seeing the tweets, we’re told, but the ability to reply to those tweets with our own. But in this case then, being blocked is no different than being muted (in the case of the latter, the muter no longer sees any tweets from the mutee, but the latter is unaware that any action has been taken). There is no obligation for any politician to notice your tweets, let alone respond to them, just as there is no obligation for a politician to answer the phone if you call his or her office.

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If we’re to accept that being blocked on Twitter constitutes a violation of our Charter rights, then at what point has that violation occurred? For example, I’m in Calgary. Would my rights be equally violated if Jim Watson blocked me on Twitter? What if an opposition Ontario MPP blocked me? Or a Quebec MP? Or an aspiring city councillor in Winnipeg?

For that matter, what about a politician who blocks nobody but rather makes his Twitter account private and only tweets to approved followers? Twitter allows for different options for people who wish to avoid certain users. Our quest to stamp out blocking might just steer politicians toward these other options and the end result will be more or less the same as before.

READ MORE: Here’s why a U.S. federal judge says Donald Trump can’t block people on Twitter

Conversely, though, there are creative ways of sharing the tweets of politicians who would otherwise try to limit their reach. A Twitter user named Russel Neiss created a bot called Real Press Sec. that repackages President Trump’s tweets as “presidential statements.” Anyone blocked by Trump could simply follow this account.

Ideally, politicians would err on the side of greater public engagement. If we value that, then we should applaud those politicians who strive to live up to that ideal and call out those who fall short of it. Banning the use of the Twitter block button isn’t the answer.

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Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.

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