Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has hit the headlines after defending her right to block Twitter users who harass her. But instead of focusing on the congresswoman’s attempt to shield herself from relentless abuse, when are social media companies going to step up and protect those who are most vulnerable?
When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez first stepped into the spotlight as the youngest-ever congresswoman and representative for New York’s 14th district in the Bronx, there were immediate signs that she’d be shaking up politics for good. From the outset, she spoke fearlessly about equality, environmentalism and universal healthcare, standing up to defy the institutionalised misogyny of the House, mobilise new generations with her passionate speeches and lead the resistance against Donald Trump.
But aside from her policies, Ocasio-Cortez’s appointment changed the face of politics in other ways. Within eight months, the new congresswoman had harnessed the power of social media and amassed one of DC’s most engaged followings. From breaking down complex political stories with ease, to crafting blistering takedowns of her critics, Ocasio-Cortez gave a masterclass in how to communicate directly with the public and shape the national conversation in exciting new ways.
Despite Ocasio-Cortez’s social media fluency, her platform comes with one major downside: abuse. And the New York freshman, who receives high levels of racist and sexist abuse, has taken to blocking Twitter users who harass her. Last month, Ocasio-Cortez faced lawsuits from Congressional candidate Joseph Saladino and former state assemblyman Dov Hikind, who sued the congresswoman for blocking them on Twitter, requesting a judge unblock them since she is a public figure.
Now, the congresswoman has defended her right to block Twitter users who harass her, after Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute penned her a letter deeming the action unconstitutional.
In a letter to Ocasio-Cortez’s office sent late yesterday, the institute urged the lawmaker to reconsider blocking people “because of the viewpoints they have expressed,” because her account is a public forum.
“You use the account as an extension of your office - to share information about congressional hearings, to explain policy proposals, to advocate legislation, and to solicit public comment about issues relating to government,” the letter reads. “The @AOC account is important to you as a legislator, to your constituents, and to others who seek to understand and influence your legislative decisions and priorities.”
The letter went on to ask Ocasio-Cortez to “unblock any Twitter users whom you or your staff have blocked from the @AOC account because of the viewpoints they have expressed,” although it did recognise that she may “wish to block users for reasons that are both reasonable and constitutionally legitimate”.
“We also recognise that abuse and harassment are significant problems on social media, especially for women and minorities, and that this abuse and harassment can deter speech and political participation that are crucial to our democracy,” the letter continued.
But Ocasio-Cortez, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, wasn’t about to be schooled by a First Amendment group on the terms of harassment and abuse, and swiftly issued a response of her own, clarifying that she only blocks 20 accounts for “ongoing harassment” - to her 5.2 million followers on Twitter, naturally.
“I have 5.2 million followers. Less than 20 accounts are blocked for ongoing harassment. 0 are my constituents,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “No one is entitled to abuse.”
“People are free to speak whatever classist, racist, false, misogynistic, bigoted comments they’d like,” but they “do not have the right to force others to endure their harassment and abuse,” she added.
Granted, the conversation raises interesting questions about free speech in the digital realm. Last month, a federal court ruled that President Trump cannot block Twitter users from his official @realdonaldtrump account, on the grounds that it is unconstitutional and discriminatory.
“The First Amendment does not permit a public official who utilises a social media account for all manner of official purposes to exclude persons from an otherwise‐open online dialogue because they expressed views with which the official disagrees,” the US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit said in the ruling.
However, while blocking social media users may be deemed discriminatory on paper, in reality, the practice is not so clear cut. As the Knight First Amendment Institute actually acknowledges in their letter, women and minorities are subject to disproportionate levels of abuse and harassment on social media, and cannot effectively engage with the national conversation when they are continually attacked, irrespective of their status as a public figure.
If everyone is to have the right to express their views and be free from abuse, then we must reorient our viewpoint, as Ocasio-Cortez so eloquently points out. Instead of inflammatory news headlines decrying the congresswoman’s efforts to shield herself from relentless abuse, social media companies must recognise their responsibility to protect their users, and create adequate protections to help build a freer digital world.