Social media sites like Twitter are making politicians more accessible than ever, but some apparently don’t want to hear from their online critics.
A number of elected officials and candidates, from Wake County Commissioner Jessica Holmes to U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, have used Twitter’s “block” feature to stop negative posts sent to their accounts. Blocking users on Twitter means that they can’t view your posts, and you won’t see any of their posts.
It’s the online equivalent of hanging up on a caller. And it’s another sign of a polarized political atmosphere in which people seek to avoid hearing opposing viewpoints.
The practice recently became a hot topic – on Twitter, of course – when Republican state Rep. Nelson Dollar of Cary briefly blocked a fellow legislator, Democratic Rep. Chris Sgro of Greensboro.
Sgro sent Dollar a tweet that criticized the legislature’s decision to shift $500,000 in disaster relief funding to cover the cost of defending House Bill 2. Instead of responding, Dollar’s account blocked Sgro.
“Guess that’s how you silence your opposition when there’s no gavel,” Sgro tweeted in response to the block.
In an interview, Dollar said “a couple friends” help him manage the Twitter account. “I didn’t know that he was blocked,” Dollar said. “Occasionally, you run into a situation where you’ve got some group that’s trying to send out a bunch of hateful stuff all the time, and you occasionally block that sort of thing. We try not to do much in the way of blocking.”
Sgro said he’s no longer blocked.
The kerfuffle between Dollar and Sgro prompted more than a dozen Republicans and legislative lobbyists to notice they’d been blocked by Dollar’s Democratic opponent, Jen Ferrell. Ferrell’s blocking struck many of them as odd because they’d never engaged with her tweets.
Ferrell defended what she called the “pre-emptive blocking of silent and vocal Twitter ‘trolls.’ ”
That reasoning didn’t make sense to some of the people Ferrell blocked. “I’ve just never heard someone (much less a candidate) call out Twitter trolls before they’ve become trolls,” tweeted Nathan Babcock, a lobbyist for the N.C. Chamber. “Interesting strategy.”
In an email to The News & Observer, Ferrell said “these folks haven’t played nice or fair for years and they don’t like it when someone is going to give it right back to them.” She did not respond to an inquiry about how many people she’s blocked.
Dollar is now making the blocking a campaign issue, criticizing Ferrell’s approach to social media with the hashtag #WhatsJenHiding. “It kind of goes against what the purpose of social media is, which is to engage a larger conversation,” he said. “You have to engage folks from a variety of perspectives on a range of issues.”
While Ferrell’s pre-emptive blocking of potential critics is unusual, plenty of politicians in North Carolina are using blocking.
The N&O asked Twitter users to submit screenshots showing who has blocked them. The list includes Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Linda Coleman, Democratic Raleigh City Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin, Republican state Reps. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville and Jason Saine of Lincolnton, Republican state Sens. Andrew Brock of Mocksville and Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County, Republican Tillis and Democrat Holmes.
While Coleman, Brock, Rucho and Tillis did not respond to inquires about the practice, several others defended it.
“I’m happy to engage in respectful dialogue with constituents via as many means as possible, including via social media,” Holmes said. “However, honestly, I have found that engaging professional trolls who focus on attacking for the sake of consternation rather than working to find solutions is not productive.”
Baldwin said she often has Twitter discussions with people who disagree with her. But she blocks comments if they “constitute harassment, if they’re threatening or if they are personal attacks.” She said her decision to block a frequent critic of the city council who opposed a grocery store development was due to “the overall tone of his communication.”
McGrady says he’s blocked “four or five people ... usually for getting abusive.” Asked about a neighbor of coal ash ponds who he blocked – McGrady has led coal ash regulations – he said the block was over something “much more partisan,” though he didn’t elaborate.
Saine uses two Twitter accounts, one of which is private, and he said he typically blocks people only on the private account. He uses the private account because of an incident several years ago involving a stalker, he said.
“Social media comes with social responsibility, and when you don’t honor your social responsibility, anyone’s fair game to be blocked,” he said. “As legislators, we’re not obligated to answer everyone on Twitter. Anyone should be able to shut out the noise to get to your constituents.”
Lawmakers’ blocking isn’t limited to anonymous accounts or people who tweet insults or threats. Former talk show host Montel Williams said he’s been blocked several times over his advocacy against House Bill 2.
Williams shared screenshots showing he was blocked by a legislative staffer and a Democratic legislator who voted for HB2: Rep. Ken Goodman of Rockingham.
“If this isn’t second grade at recess, not sure what is,” Williams tweeted in April. “I guess @RepKenGoodman can’t take heat for his #HB2 vote.”
In an email Tuesday, Goodman defended the block. “He is not a constituent in my district, nor is he a resident of North Carolina, so I feel no obligation to engage him about my votes or his association with payday lenders,” Goodman said, referencing Williams’ role as a pitch man for an online short-term loan website.
On Monday, Williams was blocked by Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James. James had referred to transgender students as “boys in drag,” and Williams responded by questioning whether James has a soul.
Williams says he’s lobbied lawmakers on Twitter in other states, but the eagerness to hit the block button appears to be unique to North Carolina.
“I never got blocked by any elected official in Indiana, Arkansas, Georgia or Mississippi, and if they think I was harsh in North Carolina, I think I was really harsh on Mississippi,” he said in a Twitter message.