Blocking, banning, and blacklisting (Part 1)
Fairly recently, James Billingham lashed up a Twitter bot to automate the process of blocking undesirable people: The Block Bot. It is apparently meant to be a sort of supplement to the user ban lists on sites like Freethought Blogs and Skepchick, helping out right-thinking people by making it easier for them to avoid interacting with certain undesirables when using Twitter. I’d like to quickly lay out a few objections to this sort of approach.
- Mass blocking leads to user suspensions – James denies this, but the Twitter rules clearly state that “if a large number of people are blocking you” that will be weighed into their spam algorithm. People who are highly experienced with being stalked on Twitter will tell you that mass-blockings are an effective way to get new accounts shut down. Don’t take my word for it, though, just create a new Twitter account and get it added to the block list.
- Mass blocking leads to less skepticism - The nature of skepticism requires rigorously testing one’s models of reality, and one of the better ways to do that is to engage your opponents. As it happens, a few of the people on block list (Renee, Karen, Ryan, Jim, Michael and Jonathan come to mind here) have raised thoughtful objections to the factual claims and social theories put forth by Atheism Plus forums, which serves as the primary user community for this project. Because the block list includes not only abusive assholes, obvious trolls, and shitty satirists, but also some of the sharper individuals who have been outspoken against A+, the list serves to insulate its subscribers not only from hateful vitriol, but also from skeptical inquiry.
- Mass blocking leads to less freethought - The sine qua non of freethought is the ability to think problems through for oneself instead of relying upon received wisdom from the establishment. By outsourcing the problem of whom to block to the bot admins, you are saving time and effort at the cost of losing the opportunity to work through the problem on your own and drawing your own lines of what constitutes tolerable discourse. Maybe your own personal tolerance for criticism and satire is significantly higher than that of the bot-blockers. Perhaps you are capable of holding your own with people who disagree, or else you’re willing to practice with them until you get there.
If the list was limited to impersonators and genuinely abusive people, problem 1 would be much less serious, and problems 2 & 3 would be obviated completely. As it stands, though, the block list is at the discretion of the most famously censorious, capricious, and biased mods known to the English-speaking rationalist movement. Even this problem could be overcome if they took the trouble to generate explicit inclusion criteria and document why each account was added to the list. As it stands, though, they are asking you to simply trust their judgement. Put your faith in the good shepherds of social justice, their rod and their staff shall comfort thee. Or, you can think for yourself.