Back in 2017, as newly-elected US President Donald Trump fulminated on his personal Twitter handle against media voices critical of him, and boasted that he had won the White House despite the “fake news" allegedly spread by them, journalist Rebecca Buckwalter tweeted back saying that Trump did not win the presidency himself, Russia did it for him. Trump promptly blocked Rebecca. She and a host of other users of the social-media platform sued the US president, arguing that Trump’s tweets constituted a public forum. Last year, a lower court in America agreed. Now, a federal appeals court has upheld that ruling, holding that the president’s practice of blocking Twitter users who disagreed with him or were critical of his policies violated the US Constitution’s First Amendment.
The amendment bars a public authority who uses a social media platform for official purposes from shutting out critical voices, the court ruled. Trump’s argument that he operated his Twitter account @realDonaldTrump in his personal capacity and thus had the right to block whoever he wanted failed to convince the judges, who said that Trump evidently acted in a governmental capacity in his use of the micro-blogging site.
The US court judgment is bound to generate a debate beyond its territorial jurisdiction on whether government officials who use social-media platforms to conduct government affairs or air their views on public policies are doing so in their personal capacity. It is undeniable that in the age of social media, a person attracts followers in proportion to the status and power he wields on account of his position in government or a corporation. What he or she says reaches millions of people following him or her, and more if tweets get retweeted, aired or published by the media. In any vibrant democracy, views and counter views are par for the course, and social media aids their expression. That’s good. But Twitter is like a megaphone and every tweet issued by someone in a top position will invariably be taken as a public statement. For personal commentary, there is WhatsApp—which claims to be encrypted.