Ethics 101: Yes, No, Maybe So | Dealing With Internet Trolls

3/14/2019

What Can You Do About Social Media Trolls?

By Nicholas Birdsong

An ethics-based pitch for elected officials using social media might point to the potential for free services like Facebook or Twitter to enhance transparency and citizen engagement. But these and other platforms often become breeding grounds for divisive arguments.

Trolls—social media users whose posts are intended to provoke angry responses—can ruin the social media experience by spamming off-topic, false, inflammatory or abusive messages. Constructive commentary can be buried beneath an avalanche of personal insults or vulgar rants about often irrelevant matters.

Officials could block disruptive users from their pages. Every major platform provides an option to block specific users, with some allowing comment removal or censorship. Censoring bad actors could help prevent toxic environments from forming and result in more productive dialogue.

However, the ends might not matter if the means are unconstitutional. In 2018, a federal district court found that the First Amendment prohibited the president from blocking individuals on Twitter for expressing critical viewpoints. The same rule might apply to state legislators.

Establishing constitutional, viewpoint-neutral restrictions can be difficult to get right. Hours spent drafting the right policy or removing obscenities, for example, might be better spent engaging with constituents. And thanks to the continuing development of this area of law, some uncertainty may surround even a carefully crafted censorship policy.

Some officials might fear that not removing hate speech or offensive comments could be viewed as implicit endorsement of those messages, but few would accuse NASA of promoting conspiracy theories for not removing flat-Earther comments on Instagram. Legislators would be at a similarly low risk of blame for not actively moderating the posts of third parties.

A hands-off approach might not do much to counteract the trolls, but it avoids the work and risks of censoring posts while arguably best embodying free speech values. At least according to the theory of the marketplace of ideas, unrestricted speech should allow consensus to naturally form over time around the strongest concepts.

But the laissez-faire approach isn’t the only alternative to censorship. Some platforms enable users to turn off public comments on their posts. Removing all comments could stop toxic online behavior before it begins, at least for that legislator’s page.

Public officials could also take advantage of community standards to deal with trolls. Every major social media platform, including Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook, has standards prohibiting abusive or harassing behavior, threats, graphic imagery, or similar content. Any user can flag content for removal. The platform then decides instead of a government official whether to remove content or ban users, which may circumvent constitutionality issues.

Every public official can and should approach online activities in the way that best suits their interests and goals. NCSL maintains a list of legislative social media policies and related resources being used by a variety of states government agencies. Let the experience of others help you decide how officials and employees should handle offensive or obscene content posted by other users.

Regardless of approach, legislators should be mindful of the potential risks and benefits of social media when engaging the public to make the best use of these free services.

Nicholas Birdsong is a policy associate with NCSL’s Center for Ethics in Government. Is an ethical dilemma keeping you up at night? Contact Nicholas.

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