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Phil Harriman, a former town councilor and state senator from Yarmouth, is the founding partner of Lebel & Harriman, a financial services firm. Ethan Strimling, a former mayor and state senator from Portland, is the president of Swing Hard. Turn Left, which promotes progressive policy at the local, state and national levels.
Phil: How do you feel about U.S. Sen. Angus King flagging 350 accounts, mostly conservative and even some constituents, by sending a list to Twitter with what some are calling his “enemy’s list” of people he wanted scrutinized on the platform?
Ethan: I am not sure all of them were actually “people,” but I was disappointed to see you weren’t on his list. You clearly need to up your Twitter game.
Phil: I wasn’t, but a lot of regular everyday Mainers were suspended, including supporters of a fellow elected official, state Sen. Eric Brakey, who also happened to be running against King. Trying to use your political power to stifle your political opponent’s free speech is troubling, wouldn’t you agree?
Ethan: It would depend on what your political opponent said. Look, as someone who has been on the receiving end of vile antisemitic anonymous Twitter attacks targeting my personal life and family and accusing me of illegal activity, Twitter and trolls are the problem here, not King.
Phil: I have seen some of those posts against you, and they are disgusting. No one should have to endure that. However, in this situation, it appears King’s campaign was offered the chance to identify Twitter accounts that it found concerning, which may have inhibited his opponent’s ability to communicate with voters during an election. Free speech is vital to our democracy, and that means responding to their message, not silencing it. Especially when you are a sitting U.S. senator.
Ethan: Except all that King did was report a disinformation account that was lying about him and spreading conspiracy theories. Twitter then asked if his campaign saw any other suspicious accounts and they responded. Twitter blocked a handful, leaving most trolls to continue spewing their hate and lies. The bigger issue is why does Twitter allow such vileness in the first place?
Phil: Most people think these platforms are news organizations. They aren’t, which is an important distinction. Twitter isn’t held to the same journalistic standards as the Bangor Daily News, for example. And when you are a U.S. senator running for reelection, you have to tolerate those who disagree with you. It is a very slippery slope to enable politicians to try to silence opposition.
Ethan: So, if someone on Twitter falsely accused you of saying something you did not say, or of committing treason against the United States, or of abusing someone you loved, would you say that Twitter has no obligation to take it down?
Phil: Of course they do. But Brakey and his supporters didn’t do anything of the sort. They made an issue of King comparing Russian hacking in the 2016 election to the horrors of 9/11 by releasing clips of King saying just that. That is no comparison to what you experienced. Furthermore, King had no chance of losing his election. His access to national donors, name recognition and earned media swamped his opponent. There was no need to target hundreds of Twitter accounts, many of whom were likely Maine voters. He should have used his vast resources to respond rather than try to silence them.
Ethan: Speaking of stifling free speech, we should let our readers know we are going to take a sabbatical from our column for a couple of months. Once again I will be retreating to an undisclosed location (keep the Twitter trolls guessing) devising the best way to protect the future of Portland, Maine and America.
Phil: Is this akin to Aaron Rogers “Darkness Retreat?” We will all await with bated breath what your next great idea is to “improve our quality of life.” In the meantime, the rest of us will remain vigilant protecting ourselves from black flies, mud season and the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Enjoy your travels my friend.
Ethan: Merci beaucoup.