The June 2017 tweet that moved President Donald Trump to block me wasn’t profane or even particularly salty. He had attacked the press yet again, claiming that if he had relied on “Fake News,” he would have lost the 2016 election. I replied, expressing my belief that Russian interference played a huge role in the election: “To be fair you didn’t win the (White House): Russia won it for you.” Within days, I realized I’d been blocked.
It didn’t occur to me at first that the president could have blocked me, not even when I noticed the flurry of gray boxes in my feed — as it turned out, they were masking tweets of the president’s that were making the rounds and getting retweeted and replied to by users whose comments I could see.
Eventually, I checked @realDonaldTrump’s Twitter page. Even then, it seemed absurd: The president of the United States had blocked me on Twitter. “You are blocked from following @realDonaldTrump and viewing @realDonaldTrump’s Tweets.”
Twitter is a platform for connecting
Twitter had always been an odd forum for me. While I was clerking for federal appellate courts, my ability to use it around politics, law and government was restricted. It had only been since I completed the clerkships and joined a think tank in 2016 that I really started to warm to this abbreviated means of communicating with people — potentially any and all people, anyone who wanted to see what I had to say.
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What ultimately got me hooked was Twitter’s power to inform and to connect everyone from avid observers to government officials. When I sought them out, legal experts at universities across the country often followed me back and replied to my messages, offering their insights. If you share an article that really resonates with readers, you can reach thousands of people quickly.
These aspects of Twitter were important to me professionally but also personally, as a citizen who, though I had always been interested in politics, had never been more preoccupied with our government.
Trump governs via tweet
When Trump blocked me, he took these things, and so much more, away. The conversations around his tweets are direct links to the presidency; being able to reply is about more than professional necessity — it’s about being able to express concerns to that office and being heard by others doing the same.
Not being able to see Trump’s tweets meant missing his pronouncements through that medium, and this was after he had confirmed that it was an official means of communication for him and used Twitter to announce several major decisions.
To participate in a conversation around a @realDonaldTrump tweet, I had to go to another source to read the tweet, then respond to a reply from someone else to the president’s tweet that I couldn’t see.
By then, the conversation was already several levels removed from the original tweet; I had lost any chance to contribute or engage the first-line responses and it was difficult to catch up. Part of what’s significant about these conversations is how they unfold in real time: Experts interpret policy-specific tweets; former officials comment on process; journalists and researchers contextualize new developments, and so on.
The only other option, using a new account to view Trump’s tweets and communicate with others, meant losing the ability to engage the readers, friends and colleagues on Twitter who followed my decade-old, verified (“blue-checked”) account and forfeiting the credibility attached to it.
The way I expressed my views was valid; I have a right to be heard in a public forum. We all do. That’s why I joined a lawsuit challenging Trump’s blocking practices. Last May, a federal judge ruled in our favor. Trump unblocked us, the plaintiffs, but he appealed the decision. On Tuesday, that appeal was heard by a U.S. circuit court.
It’s an important First Amendment case for the digital age. Today, much of democratic discourse and engagement takes place online. Officials around the country use social media to communicate with constituents. This increase in accessibility is itself democratizing. It is critical we ensure that these virtual public forums are protected just as older formats — think town halls — have been.
Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza is a plaintiff in the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University v. Trump. Follow her on Twitter @rpbp.