Twitter may the public square of our times but some citizens say their elected officials don’t want to hear from them. It’s become increasingly common for politicians at all levels of government to block followers, whether it’s for uncivil behavior or merely for expressing a different point of view.
The nation’s Tweeter-in-chief, Donald Trump, is even being sued by some Twitter users who have been blocked by @realdonaldtrump on the grounds that government officials cannot exclude anyone from a public forum such as the 140 character short message service.
But finding the right way to engage the public on Twitter isn’t just a challenge for the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Elected officials at all levels are struggling with it, including Utah state Sen. Todd Weiler, a Republican who’s well-known in that state for sarcastic tweets and Twitter tussles with critics under the handle @GOPTodd.
“I kind of like to show people who I really am,” he said. “And it’s not a mean, nasty person, but it is someone who likes to laugh at himself and occasionally laugh at others.”
While Weiler says he doesn’t do it all that often, he does block people.
Last February, when air pollution was particularly bad in Utah due to an inversion layer that’s common in the winter, Jessica Rawson tweeted at Weiler after seeing him use what she thought was a mocking tone about air quality.
“The disrespect you show your constituents is appalling. We are all chocking (sp.) and want to see serious action on the issue!” wrote Rawson, who lives in Utah but isn’t one of Weiler’s constituents.
And just like that, Weiler blocked her.
Recently, during a conversation with Weiler about his online habits, he unexpectedly agreed to talk to Rawson for this story.
When the pair spoke by phone, Rawson said she was new to Twitter at the time and was surprised when she got blocked. “I’d never been blocked by anyone, and my comment was critical, but I didn’t feel like it was block-worthy.”
Weiler explained that her tweet came during the legislative session and she was “probably the eighth or ninth or tenth person who blamed me for the bad air that day and I just probably had enough and I’m like, ‘I’m not going to put up with this.'”
Being one of the most active members of the Utah legislature online means Weiler attracts more flak than most. He says he only really has issues with people who make personal attacks on him, his family or his Mormon faith.
John Mejia, legal director of the ACLU of Utah, says that while obscenity and personal threats are not acceptable, he’s noticed more elected officials across the political spectrum are shutting out constituents online.
“The problem is when any state official or any government official in the United States opens up a public forum and starts censoring based on viewpoint,” said Mejia.
“From our perspective, if you’re blocking somebody from commenting, or even receiving your comments, that’s a form of censorship that we felt had to stop,” said Mejia, whose office has received complaints about blocking by members of Utah’s congressional delegation, in particular Congresswoman Mia Love.
A spokesman for Love, Richard Piatt, said it’s rare for them. But those who do get blocked usually have committed what he called “egregious” violations – that includes racial slurs and profanity.
As for Weiler and Rawson, they talked for almost half an hour.
After being blocked, Rawson did more research and learned that Weiler is actually very active on clean air issues in Utah.
Weiler admitted he doesn’t take Twitter that seriously and that it’s “more of a game for me” although he values learning from different viewpoints. “I have never tried to cocoon myself like some people do, to only have an echo chamber where I only hear what other Republicans are saying.”
Before they ended the call, Weiler told Rawson he had unblocked her and he hopes they stay in touch.
“I’m not a mean person in real life, and I’m not typically a mean person on Twitter,” said Weiler.
Rawson laughed, “Hopefully that’s the same for me, right?”
After the conversation, Weiler said the phone call reminds him that the most meaningful engagement happens through talking to one another — not a tweet.