Editor’s Note: Lauren Wolfe is a journalist and the director of Women Under Siege, a Women’s Media Center initiative on sexualized violence in conflict. She is also a columnist at Foreign Policy magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Wolfe321. The views expressed are her own. UPDATE: This commentary first appeared in June, 2017. On Wednesday a federal judge in New York ruled that the President is in violation of the Constitution when he blocks users–like the author–on Twitter.
After a tweet criticizing the President, Wolfe was blocked from Trump's Twitter account
By silencing critical public voices, Trump was taking the first step toward curtailing free speech and press
When Donald Trump first started tweeting as president, my eyes were popping out of my head at each weird, angry and (we learned later) apparently unvetted proclamation. I couldn’t believe he was making such statements on Twitter, as opposed to in an official White House statement, which we, the press, rely on for responses to world issues.
The problem with the President’s tweets, besides their mangled syntax, made-up words and personal vendettas, is that so many of them are flat-out lies: narratives cooked up from who knows where in his mind and disseminated to his millions of followers (and millions of bots).
So when he tweeted on Sunday after the terror attack in London: “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!’” like many I was appalled but not surprised. The quote from London Mayor Sadiq Khan was, of course, taken entirely out of context and as such amounted to a lie.
I replied to Trump on Twitter: “What Khan in fact said: There was ‘no reason to be alarmed’ by an increased, armed police presence. You know no bounds. Liar.”
And he blocked me.
I’m not the first to be blocked by the President, nor am I likely to be the last. And if Trump were @JoeCitizen, and not President of the United States, blocking a Twitter interlocutor who hits back would be a little thin-skinned but it would be OK.
But it’s not OK for this presidential tweeter. As his press secretary, Sean Spicer, has asserted, Trump’s tweets are his “official statements.” They might as well, as this Twitter bot illustrates, be printed on official letterhead.
On Tuesday, lawyers for the nonprofit Knight First Amendment Institute agreed, and asked Trump to unblock Twitter accounts that are critical of him, saying they would initiate legal action based on the First Amendment if he didn’t. Knight called Trump’s account a “designated public forum” that is subject to the amendment, which “bars the government from excluding individuals … because of their views.”
They are right. President Trump, unblock me and all the other citizen voices you have shut down. It’s my First Amendment right to be heard in the public forum of your Twitter feed.
I admit that my tweet was a bit more pointed than my other tweets to Trump, some of which have gone viral, but the media must call a liar a liar and not a person who posits “alternative facts” or any other silly euphemism. I went on (before he blocked me): “A politician twisting words to create fear and garner control – that’s fascism.” You may disagree, which is fine. That is the whole point of free speech.
There are implications to consider here: When Trump shuts out his critics, he withdraws further into the bubble of sycophancy he already enjoys. Circumscribing what you read and hear becomes a dangerous affirmation that everything you’re doing is right.
Furthermore, it is a trope of authoritarianism to want to tightly control all story lines. Just look at what Arab Spring countries’ leaders were tweeting in 2012 in an attempt to twist the narrative away from activists and toward propaganda. Or at how Rwanda’s President, prolific tweeter Paul Kagame, unloaded on journalists who reported about human rights abuses.
Most important, silencing critical public voices is one step on the road toward the ultimate suppression of the press.
This last should truly scare us all. Censorship takes many forms, and in many parts of the world, governments jail or kill journalists to quiet them. Nobody is suggesting that anyone’s killed reporters (although jailing is a different story here, historically) but there are warning signs we can’t ignore.
In February, The New York Times reported, Trump told then-FBI Director James Comey that “he should consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information.” There have also been several high-profile attacks on reporters by government officials.
Suppressing public discourse and dissent goes against the very premise of our democracy. Knight makes the point that Trump’s Twitter censorship is no different from disallowing mayors to eject critics from town halls. Our politicians, elected by us, are supposed to be governing with our opinions in mind. How can they if they can’t even hear us?
A few hours after taking office, Trump moved a bust of Winston Churchill into his office. Presumably he admires the guy. Maybe, then, he should try heeding his words: “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary,” Churchill said. “It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”