Dealing with the Twitter mob: Would crowdsourcing block lists make things better or worse?

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Like any pseudo-anonymous social platform, Twitter is particularly susceptible to troll-like behavior, from the merely annoying all the way to the truly disgusting — as Zelda Williams, the daughter of actor and comedian Robin Williams, found out following the death of her father on Tuesday — but Twitter blocking and banning features have been widely criticized as ineffective, if not completely useless. Glenn Fleishman, publisher of The Magazine, argues that “collaborative blocking” services could help by crowdsourcing a solution to this problem.

In an essay at Boing Boing, Fleishman says Twitter’s rules on harassment “give individuals and groups of people asymmetrical power as long as they are persistent and awful,” and argues that the company’s definition of abuse is too restrictive, and its response to such complaints usually inadequate. He quotes Samantha Allen, a fellow at Emory University, who was subjected to repeated abuse earlier this year after she wrote about video-game journalism:

“As it’s currently built, Twitter wins during harassment campaigns and we lose. We have to accept working and socializing in an unsafe environment because Twitter doesn’t want to permanently ban users or implement more drastic penalties for abuse.”

Crowdsourcing a troll list

Twitter has come under fire from a number of other users who have been on the receiving end of similar abuse by trolls, such as British journalist Caroline Criado-Perez, who got thousands of abusive messages — including death threats, which are specifically banned by Twitter’s terms of use — and complained that the company’s response was not helpful, and in any case took too long to implement. Twitter later changed its “block” feature, but the changes were criticized by many of those it was supposed to appeal to, so the company changed it back.

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Fleishman’s suggestion is that groups of Twitter users collaborate on deciding whom to block — or mute — via third-party apps and services such as The Block Bot, an open-source project that was set up by a group of atheists who found themselves subjected to harassment for expressing their views, as well as Block Together and a third project in the alpha stage known as Flaminga, which would allow friends to share block and mute lists. Fleishman says that Samantha Allen used Block Bot after her experience and liked what she saw (or didn’t see):

“It’s definitely made Twitter more livable for me, at least in the short term. I know that it might end up blocking a handful of people that I wouldn’t otherwise want to block, but when you get the kind of unwanted attention that I regularly receive, you just have to accept that you have to make little sacrifices like that for your piece of mind.”

As Fleishman points out in his post, it’s difficult — if not impossible — for a middle-class white male who isn’t gay or a member of some other marginalized group to appreciate what life online can be like for women, homosexuals, the transgendered and others who are routinely subject to abuse. They are the ones who have to deal with the downside of Twitter’s “free-speech wing of the free-speech party” approach to social-network management, and the company’s desire to keep the service as open and public as possible.

Who decides what a troll is?

But as someone who has defended Twitter’s approach a number of times, even when the speech in question was offensive and abusive to certain groups — as it was in France, when a number of users posted homophobic and anti-Semitic messages that triggered a lawsuit against Twitter — the idea of a collaborative block list sounds to me like a good idea that could potentially go awry (although any crowdsourced feature in social media would probably fit that description).

My fear, and that of some others I have spoken to about it, is that these collaborative lists could create a slippery-slope problem and wind up generating a kind of reverse mob effect, in which some users wind up being blocked by large numbers of people for reasons that aren’t quite clear, or don’t really meet the standard of abuse and harassment. And that’s exactly what Martin Robbins describes in a recent piece in VICE magazine: not only has he been put on the block list, but so have users like New Statesman editor Helen Lewis and — somewhat shockingly — Caroline Criado-Perez, who herself was the target of sexist abuse and harassment.

Fleishman noted during a discussion of the idea on Twitter — as did blogging pioneer and ThinkUp co-founder Anil Dash — that block lists don’t actually ban anyone from Twitter, they merely block or hide them from users who opt-in to the feature or app. So where’s the harm? What difference does it make whether someone like Robbins is blocked by a small number of users for “trivializing a serious discussion,” or some other perceived slight against a particular group?

There’s no obvious damage being done to freedom of speech in this scenario, since it’s just a group of people deciding they don’t want to pay attention to someone. Unless Twitter decides to build those lists into its own blocking functions, there wouldn’t be a concern about it snowballing to the point where some users were denied access to a Twitter audience — and some have argued that it’s better than having Twitter decide who gets banned. But I confess that I still find the idea troubling, even though I can’t quite put my finger on why.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Tony Margiocchi and Shutterstock / aceshot1

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