Facebook and Twitter have become central parts of our political and civic lives. It’s not just President Donald Trump on Twitter and political ads on Facebook. Politicians and agencies across the country use social media to communicate policy, share information and hear from constituents. Those politicians and agencies also have the ability to block those who comment on their posts.
We were curious about that. So, in August, we filed public-records request with every governor and 22 federal agencies for lists of people blocked on their official Facebook and Twitter accounts. We found that nearly 1,300 accounts were blocked — more than half by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin. Bevin’s a Republican, but both Democrat and Republican governors block people.
When the administrator of a public Facebook page blocks an account, the user can no longer comment on the page. That can create an inaccurate public image of support for government policies.
If a city council member, mayor, state representative or governor is blocking or curating their constituents on Facebook and Twitter, that’s important for local reporters to know. Who are these elected officials blocking? Why? And how many? You don’t have to be a reporter, either. California paralegal Angela Greben has submitted dozens of requests for social media block lists and publicizes them on her blog, “Government Block Lists Revealed.”
We’ve laid out below how you can find out if elected officials are blocking anyone. If you have questions about any step in the process, email us at [email protected].
Step 1: Figure Out the Law
Look up the relevant open-records laws to make sure that your request includes everything the law requires and that the official or agency are subject to these requests. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press maintains a database of open-records laws by state.
There are differences between states. For example, Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act exempts the governor’s office, legislature and others from the state’s open-records law. The Center for Public Integrity has a helpful state-by-state ranking of public access to government records.
Step 2: Draft Your Record Requests
The National Freedom of Information Coalition has sample open-records request letters for each state and both the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and MuckRock have online tools to create request letters.
Here’s the information we requested from the governor of Florida. You can use it as a template for your requests:
A list of all Twitter accounts blocked by @FLGovScott (the official Twitter account of the governor of Florida)
All direct messages sent or received by @FLGovScott (the official Twitter account of the governor of Florida)
A list of all Facebook accounts blocked by Governor Rick Scott (the official Facebook account of the governor of Florida)
A list of all Facebook accounts blocked by Rick Scott (the personal Facebook account of the governor of Florida)
All direct messages sent or received by Governor Rick Scott (the official Facebook account of the governor of Florida)
All direct messages sent or received by Rick Scott (the personal Facebook account of the governor of Florida)
You should include instructions about how to get all of the information requested. For example: “Blocked Twitter accounts can be accessed when logged to any account by going to https://twitter.com/settings/blocked.”
Step 3: Wait...
Response times vary wildly. Some of our requests took a matter of days. Others took months. And still others haven’t responded yet.
Federal agencies and many states are required to acknowledge receipt of your request within 20 working days. If your records can’t be produced in that time, some states are supposed to let you know if they need more time. Whatever you do, keep track of your request.
Step 4: Prepare for a Back-and-Forth
Getting public records often means enduring delays and runarounds. Of the 72 open-records requests that ProPublica sent to governors and federal agencies about social media blocking, seven refused our requests or provided only partial information. Some examples:
Outgoing Governor of Kansas Sam Brownback’s office told us they would not share their block lists due to “privacy concerns for those people whose names might appear on it.”
Alabama declined to provide public records because ProPublica’s request did not come from an Alabama citizen.
- Michigan declined to provide records because its governor is not subject to Freedom of Information laws.
Four states provided incomplete records:
Wyoming provided their Twitter block lists, but no Facebook information.
Georgia sent copies of direct messages received by the governor’s Twitter account, but nothing else.
- Florida also only sent a list of accounts blocked on Twitter. While a verified “public figure” account for Rick Scott does exist, and is regularly updated with press releases from the governor’s office, the office says the account is run by Scott’s political team and is not subject to public-records requests.
- Gov. Eric Greitens’ office in Missouri also declined to share records from the governor’s Facebook or Twitter accounts, saying neither are “considered to be the ‘official’ social media accounts of the Governor of Missouri.”