Three and a half years ago, President Donald Trump blocked me on Twitter. After the Jan. 6 attack on our democracy, he has been deplatformed by Twitter itself and most other social media sites. Having worked with the Knight First Amendment Institute to get my account unblocked by the president, I recognize both the power and responsibility of free speech on social media. And now Colorado’s newest congresswoman, Lauren Boebert, is following in the footsteps of her leader by blocking people on Twitter and inciting right wing extremism on social media and off.
I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer four years ago. The day after I began chemotherapy, House Republicans voted to abolish the Affordable Care Act, which was keeping me alive.
I was not expecting to spend most of 2017 fighting for my life through multiple rounds of chemotherapy and then radiation, and to have to fight our president and Congress through protests online and off to keep my health insurance.
And I really wasn’t expecting to find out one day that the president of the United States had blocked my account overnight on Twitter. He was forced to unblock me the following year, due to the First Amendment protections upheld by the courts.
I exercised my right to speak out at countless peaceful protests outside former Sen. Dean Heller’s office in Las Vegas, and former Sen. Cory Gardner’s office in Denver. Many of these events were organized online too, via social media. But we wore pink hats and carried signs, not guns. We did not smash our way into federal buildings, nor carry zip ties and handcuffs or nooses. We dropped off petitions to their front desks, not chanted for their deaths.
Health care reform was literally a life and death fight for many of us around the country, but we didn’t cosplay as a SWAT team and then try to capture and kill our senators and representatives. Nor did our Democratic leaders egg us on to do that.
Instead we organized, we got loud, and we peacefully voted out that government via massive turnout in the elections of 2018 and 2020.
I’ve been angry and scared, and wanted my voice to be heard. I’ve felt the betrayal of elected officials not listening to me, voting against my needs, indeed my very life. The right-wing militants were neither protesting nor petitioning the government for a redress of their grievances. Our president and several other complicit Republican elected officials went well beyond the line of pouting and licking their wounds into fanning the flames of violence to incite a deadly attack to overthrow our government. And the social media platforms amplified their hate.
We live in a frightening moment, and an infuriating one. Millions of Americans have worked very hard over the last four years for change and to convince voters to support a new administration. Now we see an attack on our votes, the rule of law, and our democracy.
Big Tech’s ability to radicalize ordinary people and maybe even lead them to violence is an enormous problem we have yet to touch. However they are making a dent this time by holding seditionists and conspiracy theorists like QAnon followers accountable online, if not yet offline. Facebook in particular has been reluctant to hold conservatives to their own rules, but all of the social media companies have been afraid to act for fear of being called biased.
Some people, including Donald Trump Jr., are claiming their First Amendment rights are being violated if they are denied a platform on social media. And newly-elected right-wing Congresswoman Boebert is following in his footsteps by blocking her constituents as well.
The First Amendment means that the government is not allowed to restrict your free speech — within reason. Proud Boys, white nationalists and the elected officials encouraging the violence and breaking the law don’t get to use it as a shield to attack the foundations of our democracy.
Lower courts ruled that Trump effectively created a public forum with his Twitter account. He made it a part of the government. So he was forced by law to unblock critics like me.
Social media companies are private business entities, not the government. Just as businesses can put restrictions on their customers (no shirt, no shoes, no service), they can set terms of service that excludes dangerous conspiracy theories and hate. We can and should debate whether big tech monopolies have become too powerful and need to be more closely regulated, but the government has no place to say what they must print.
Elected officials like Trump and Boebert cannot block social media speech they simply don’t want to hear, but social media companies are within their rights to block his megaphone if he violates their rules.
In the case of egging on armed protesters attempting to violently overthrow our government, the right course to take seems pretty clear. If social media companies don’t draw the line here and take a stand, where do they draw the line? If we don’t hold Trump and Boebert and everyone involved in this attack on our country accountable, they will only escalate.