Powerful politicians banning people from partaking in public debate poses democratic problems, a researcher has argued, calling for a politically non-aligned body to issue social media blocking guidelines for MPs and local politicians.

Elected officials in Finland are getting increasingly more flak from the public for blocking critics, dissidents, and ideological opponents on social media.

Media researcher Jukka-Pekka Puro of the University of Turku has noted a spike in politicians blocking followers. According to him, this practice is most widely spread among left-wing MPs representing the Left Alliance and the Greens.

At the end of 2017, former Greens chair Touko Aalto blocked Centre party MP Mikko Kärnä for what Aalto called inappropriate comments. In October 2018 Chancellor of Justice Tuomas Pöysti ruled that then-premier Juha Sipilä had the right to block users from his Twitter account, because it was his personal one and not the official government account. Current Greens leader Maria Ohisalo had previously blocked the daily newspaper Ilta-Sanomat’s editor-in-chief Ulla Appelsin on Twitter, only to remove the block after she assumed the post of interior minister.

Puro cited the allegedly high volume of inappropriate messages they receive.

“I get that users will block accounts sending particularly aggressive messages. But it’s not always easy to determine where to draw the line”, Puro told national broadcaster Yle, suggesting that the borders between unacceptable behaviour and personal preferences at times may be quite blurred.

According to Puro, politicians must be able to withstand criticism. Problems arise from a democratic standpoint when powerful politicians prevent people from participating in public discussion by blocking users.

“The more powerful a politician, the more carefully they should weigh the decision to block someone”, Puro explained.

While blocking due to rude or abusive behaviour does not cause complaints and blocking obvious trolls is even recommended to prevent offensive content or misinformation, determining “inappropriate behaviour” and its consequences is a much more difficult issue. To address this issue, Puro even suggested that the time may be ripe for a politically non-aligned body to issue social media blocking guidelines for elected officials.

“One Finnish principle is that if someone behaves inappropriately, blocking is possible. However, sometimes it also happens because of disagreement”, Pekka Isotalus, professor of speech communication at the University of Tampere, admitted, suggessting that politicians shouldn’t “put up with everything”.

However, in the future, political discussions may shift away from Twitter and increasingly switch to Instagram due to the platform’s rising popularity with young people, Puro predicted.

“Twitter favors spunky and enthusiastic participation, but Instagram is very different. From a politician’s point of view, Instagram is more manageable”, Puro concluded.

Meanwhile, high-ranking politicians blocking users over various issues is a topic of international importance. Last week, a US federal court ruled that President Donald Trump couldn’t block his critics on Twitter because his account was seen as a public forum, a virtual assembly of sorts, where citizens can engage with his comments.

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