There is a joke on Twitter about being blocked by CPC MPs. There is even a hashtag, #BlockedByRempel, started in response to the many, many Canadians that the MP for Calgary Nose Hill, Michelle Rempel, has blocked from seeing her Tweets or communicating directly with her. And she is not the only MP to block people.
As it happens, MPs and other elected officials in other countries are blocking constituents as well. However, unlike in Canada where there is barely a murmur in mainstream media about the practice, it is causing a stir in other places. Glyn Davies, Conservative MP for Montgomeryshire, Wales, is quick on the “block” button and got written up in Welsh media for it.
Mr Davies is unapologetic.
He said: “I’m blocking about half a dozen people a day. Social media is something I don’t have to do, and not all MPs do it.
“I enjoy Twitter, but I don’t want to engage on it with people who are being negative. If they want to be negative, they can go and be negative with somebody else on Twitter – not me.”
Another British MP, Sheryll Murray, Conservative MP for South-East Cornwall, got both a #BlockedBySheryll hashtag and a write-up in Cornwall Live where the question is raised as to whether or not a politician is breaking the MPs’ Code of Conduct by blocking constituents on social media. In the UK, the Parliamentarians’ Code of Conduct includes:
On general duties, the Code mentions that “Members have a general duty to act in the interests of the nation as a whole; and a special duty to their constituents.”
As for ‘Accountability’, it is stated that “Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.”
On Openness, the Code says: “Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.”
Canada does not have a statute governing MPs’ conduct except pertaining to attendance, and conflict of interest. But perhaps there does need to be some rules around social media conduct for MPs and other elected officials. British blogger, Jon Worth, had some interesting observations to make about blocking people, especially constituents.
I think the heart of the problem here is the misunderstanding of the Block function by some of these politicians. Block is the last step, the most ballistic option, the one that says most bluntly “I am deliberately refusing to listen to anything you say, ever”.
He goes on to explain that there are other options, such as “mute”. But, even more critical, perhaps, than an elected politician refusing to listen to a constituent, is an elected politician purposefully excluding a segment of the population from being privy to the thoughts, ideas, and opinions they broadcast to others. It creates a division. A two-tiered relationship with the electorate.
If you post something on Twitter, it is in the public domain. The White House has gone so far as to concede that Donald Trump’s tweets are to be considered “Official Statements” by the President. So, it follows that if he were to block people from reading his tweets, as I understand he has done, he is effectively attempting to deprive some citizens of the official information coming out of the administration. Even more than that, when our MPs go off on Twitter rants, it gives the voting public insights into their characters that are not available in carefully constructed talking points or speeches. This can be quite enlightening.
I fully understand the sort of vile comments, and even threats, that are thrown about on social media. I am not suggesting that any elected official should be subjected to that. But where is the line? What is a sufficient cause to make blocking a constituent justified? Uttering threats, obviously. And the RCMP should also be notified. Name-calling? Profanity? Telling an MP they are wrong on some issue? Asking a challenging question? What about asking another MP from the same party a challenging question? Some suspect that the CPC have a Twitter block list because they find themselves blocked by MPs with whom they have had absolutely no prior communication. How did they wind up being blocked, unless there is indeed a list shared among MPs?
If MPs are blocking anyone who does not share their views, based simply on the fact that they do hold a different view, that is a suppression of democracy. When the CPC was in power they held events closed to non-members, and with restricted media access. That this did not incite more outrage is surprising, because it is the government of a country excluding a large portion of the citizenry from participation in the discussions of the day.
The same is true of Twitter. Social media is popular with politicians because it allows them to reach a broad audience with little to no expense. But when they limit their audience to their supporters, they are ignoring and even disenfranchising those they have blocked. They are saying, “You can’t see what I am saying to my followers. You are not worthy of participation in this discussion because you don’t agree with me.”
It is no longer valid to say, “Oh, but it’s just Twitter.” At least one world leader makes official statements on Twitter. Twitter has been used to organize, to discuss, to lead change. Twitter is an open forum where people who cannot be on Parliament Hill or in their Provincial Legislature can speak directly to their representatives, and their representatives can speak directly to them. It is democratizing, egalitarian, and immediate. Our rules for government at all levels, and for the people who serve in those governments and opposition parties need to be updated to reflect this change in social norms. There needs to be clarity on what grounds are sufficient to block a citizen, and a review process in case of an appeal.
Democracy is based on equal access to representation and participation. If elected leaders exclude those who do not agree, will neither listen, nor talk to them, it is not democracy. It is something else altogether.