Blocking the People

In Israel, like the U.S., politicians like to silence their opponents, and they disparage citizens and ignore freedom of expression on social media

US President Donald Trump speaks to the press with Joshua Holt (out of frame), who had been detained in Venezuela for two years, in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, on May 26, 2018.

A federal district court in New York made a far-reaching decision last week: U.S. President Donald Trump cannot block users on his Twitter account. Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald ruled that officials who use their social media accounts to communicate with the public and choose to block some citizens are in effect violating the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression. 

The vision of the internet’s pioneers has come true, and now it seems that even the legal system recognizes this. The internet in general – and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter in particular – have become the primary forum for political discourse, where ordinary citizens can express their views and gain ostensibly direct and equal access to those in power, or complain about politicians or companies.

But the dream of a revolution that would flatten the power pyramid did not take into account the ability of leaders to exert their power in cyberspace, through tools that the platforms themselves allow to divert the discussion and silence criticism. The ruling handed down last week is a positive and important step toward correcting the situation, reminding those in power that it is impossible to silence citizens with the push of a button. 

The problem is that politicians in the United States continue to think they can act on Twitter and Facebook as if they were in their own homes. The petitioners against Trump – including surgeon Dr. Eugene Gu – told Newsweek on Sunday that they are still blocked.

The situation in Israel is no less serious: Israeli politicians like to silence their opponents, and they disparage citizens and ignore freedom of expression on social media. Only last week, many users reported that Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman blocked them on Twitter after their critical posts. And he is not the only one. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, and many other ministers and politicians, including Yair Lapid and Stav Shaffir, block visitors to their pages. Moreover, as Haaretz and the Open University discovered last year, Netanyahu’s Facebook page also hides critical posts by certain users, so that only the writers themselves can see them.

Lieberman, Netanyahu and others can’t claim ignorance, since State Comptroller and Ombudsman Joseph Shapira ruled last year that “not allowing a citizen to respond to a public official’s Facebook page, or erasing his response, is an act that violates that person’s freedom of speech.” Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit must start implementing those principles expressed by Shapira, and the spirit of the U.S. court ruling, and force politicians to observe them.