First Amendment advocates last week sued President Donald Trump for blocking Twitter users who criticized him online, arguing the social media bans are akin to locking citizens out of a public square.
But the president is not the only government official limiting access to his digital podium.
Nearly 800 Twitter handles — including the official @POTUS presidential account now controlled by Trump — were blocked or muted by Michigan state government accounts as of this summer, according to records provided to the State Journal through a Freedom of Information Act request. Blocked users cannot access tweets from those agencies, which range from tongue-in-cheek memes to promotion of government programs to official announcements sometimes related to public safety.
Treatment of Twitter accounts varied widely from agency to agency. Many blocked none, while the dozen accounts associated with the Michigan Department of Transportation blocked a combined 550 individual Twitter handles. MDOT has far more followers than other state agencies.
While most of the blocked accounts are clearly spam or pornography, not all of them are. State officials couldn't explain how or why some accounts were blocked, or said it apparently happened by mistake — like when the Michigan Liquor Control Commission blocked actor Rainn Wilson (who played Dwight Schrute on the "The Office").
The Michigan Alliance Against Hate Crime blocked @POTUS in 2014, when President Barack Obama still controlled the account, because Twitter was promoting several accounts that cluttered up the MAAHC feed, Michigan Department of Civil Rights spokeswoman Vicki Levengood said last week. The alliance also blocked several corporate accounts around the same time, she said.
Both accounts were unblocked after inquiries from the State Journal, officials said.
"The MLCC has enjoyed laughing at Mr. Wilson’s acting on ‘The Office’ and now he can follow how the commission is protecting consumers while helping liquor licensees grow Michigan’s economy," spokesman Jason Moon said in a statement.
Some of the blocked accounts were legitimate businesses, while others appeared to be tied to typical individuals. Among them were twitterers who described themselves online as an Upper Peninsula racecar fan, a lawyer and veteran, and a London technology blogger.
There's no evidence anyone was blocked simply for criticizing a government agency, as Trump is accused of doing.
Contributing to the inconsistency in Michigan is the fact that statewide social media policies were long outdated and the position overseeing those policies sat vacant for three years. Andrew Belanger, the man who took that position in December, said last week the state doesn't know how many employees have access to post on government social media accounts, though they're trying to develop that list now. Michigan government agencies have 4.7 million followers spread across 450 different social media accounts on 11 platforms.
Instigated in part by a national obsession with Trump's sometimes troublesome tweets, one of Belanger's first tasks was to revamp the guidelines for government social media posts. A statewide social media governance council, made up of various agencies' marketing officials, was formed in April, and new guidance on government blocking was issued last Tuesday, Belanger said.
"As a state, our goal is to provide a transparent front for our social and all of our digital activities," he said. "And, as part of that, we don't condone — or, as a standard practice, promote — blocking, banning or muting of followers."
There are exceptions for persistent violations of the state's or the social media platform's rules — threats, harassment or nudity can get you blocked — but the state now advises agencies to report problem tweeters to Twitter before blocking them, Belanger said. The guidelines also say agencies should document when and why individual accounts are blocked.
Specific agencies still are allowed to customize their own policies and practices, Belanger said.
A town square?
Caleb Buhs, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Technology, Management & Budget, likened the state's social media policy to the way it approaches protestors. Residents can demonstrate on state property, but "if they are being disruptive to business taking place, that's when we would ask them to leave."
That's another part of the problem. While there are laws governing residents' access to physical government properties, there's no statute or case law establishing what rights Michiganders have to interact with their government online.
If you applied to Twitter the laws that govern town halls, as the advocates who sued Trump claim should be done, Michigan's Open Meetings Act says individuals can only be banned from meetings over "a breach of the peace actually committed at the meeting." So, for example, the owner of a strip club — a Kalamazoo club was among those blocked by MDOT — could not be forced out of a council meeting just for the nature of the business, only if the owner did something like hire strippers to disrobe in front of the council.
But that analogy can be problematic, because Twitter is a private company, not a public square, said Faith Sparr, a lecturer at the University of Michigan's Communication Studies Department. Residents might not be able to claim they're banned from a public forum if Twitter owns the hall, she said.
"It is a very interesting idea," Sparr said in an email to the State Journal, "but I wonder whether the courts will find the reasoning compelling enough to apply public forum doctrine in such a new way."
Sparr wondered if banning a Twitter follower is more like a politician who only agrees to interviews with reporters friendly to his or her position. That might ruffle feathers, but is not illegal.
Nonetheless, Buhs and Belanger said they're working on new policies — guidelines on who government should follow online are coming soon — to build accountability into the state's social media presence.
It's important, the pair said, because for all the risks associated with social media — everything from angering a blocked follower to getting hacked to an errant, alcohol-fueled tweet — the platform helps government reach its citizens.
In 2015, on the anniversary of the "Back to the Future" film, a Michigan State Police Facebook post about a DeLorean getting pulled over for going 88 miles an hour (fans of the films will understand) was shared more than 187,000 times, "liked" 189,000 times, and received 5,500 comments. That kind of engagement not only helps government seem more approachable, Buhs said, but also connects people to government who might then see a future post about something more serious, such as public safety.
"We've always recognized the need to be where the people are," Belanger said, "because they're more likely to engage with us where they feel comfortable."
Blocked/muted Twitter followers
This is the combined number of blocked and muted followers for all Twitter accounts associated with each department:
State Housing Development Authority: 36
Attorney General: 1
Health & Human Services: 26
Gaming Control Board: 0
Agriculture & Rural Development: 46
Environmental Quality: 0
Military & Veterans Affairs: 0
Licensing & Regulatory Affairs: 10
Civil Rights: 27
Technology, Management & Budget: 11
Natural Resources: 7
Talent & Economic Development: 27
State Police: 21
Gov. Rick Snyder: 19
Lt. Gov. Brian Calley: 0
Source: Documents provided by Freedom of Information Act request