How I ended up on The Block Bot

Tools to crack down on abuse can themselves be used as tools of abuse.

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  1. This week, in covering the ongoing story of online abuse BBC Newsnight featured a tool known as "The Block Bot" created by James Billingham, known online as ool0n. The piece is framed with US Journalist Quinn Norton telling us that "men are raised to hate women", discussed the phenomenon of sexist abuse that some women experience online, and then introduced the Block Bot as a "list of offenders".

    This was troubling to me as I am on this list. What was my offence then? First a bit of background. For those unfamiliar with the ongoing dramas within the secular and atheist communities, the #FTBullies hashtag has been the centre of a debate around the online behaviour of some atheist communities. It became the hashtag of choice for the ongoing dialogue / argument on the topic of online abuse and "trolling" within the community, with two broad sections making arguments of varying quality that the others were the "real" trolls and bullies. More on this later. 

    I previously made my own position known in this blog summarised in this blog with the cumbersome title  Women’s Rights are a Pivotal Issue of the 21st Century; But The Public Image of Feminism is Doing More Harm Than Good. It's about 3000 words and thus didn't make much of an impact, but to summarise, In my opinion the tactics used by some feminist groups online act to alienate potential allies, often by labelling critics unfairly to police "repuational boundaries".  I later fleshed out this idea in a blog on Group Polarisation theory, which touched briefly on abuse meted out by the FreeThoughtBlogs community.  Anyway, it had been in the back of my mind that the constant use of the term "troll" reminded me of a previous incident. 
  2. You can find my summary of this episode here in my article on Skeptic Ireland. "Sheep, Shills and Freedom of Speech in the Conspiracy Community"
  3. It was actually the Irish Independent, my mistake. You can read it here. 
  4. The original Sovereign Independent piece has now, in another irony, vanished down the memory hole
  5. As I recall, the author of the piece said he "didn't have time for trolls", left more accusations, blocked me and deleted the entire comment thread. 
  6. The next moment, this happened. 
  7. Note that the initial tweet (now seemingly deleted, but captured in my retweet) has no mention of tiers at all. The description of @The_Block_Bot's twitter account, even after all the recent backpedaling about tiers, is " Helping you to ignore the anti-feminists, bigots and fools on Twitter". 

    I will admit that I was taken aback at the sheer mind-imploding irony of this. This was my offence. The Block Bot moderator then goes on to taunt me. 
  8. At this point in time, before ool0n's list was known to the wider world via the BBC, it was something of a joke, having more people on it that was following it. But that didn't stop it causing me some annoyance at be added on public list of "bigots" from which there is no way to be removed, and then taunted for not being very happy about it.  I lost my temper and responded thus; 
  9. I perhaps went a bit overboard here, I have no doubt some who signed up genuinely wanted to stop harassment they were receiving, and likely did not know that The Block Bot is in essence a technological implementation of a rhetorical device. Lumping all your opponents into one category and criticising them all equally for the behaviour of the worst, who are actually a minority. It is guilt by artificial association. A good review of how it works by Tim Farley can be found here: "The Block Bot is unsuitable for use in its present form"
  10. The above tweets are also an example of how twitter is hopeless at communicating complex ideas. What I was attempting to say here is that when some people defend an ideology, what they are actually doing is trying to keep their own sense of identity intact. The more a person is invested in a group identity, the more voraciously they will defend it. People will do impressive mental gymnastics to stop this from happening and revealing the existential horror of the fragility of their own ego. A sober, empirical dismantling of a worldview is in this case a partial dissection of a person's sense of self. This is emotionally painful. Our ego is smart enough to turn such criticisms into a validations and the term "troll" is a useful tool for which to do this.

    Does that make tools like the Block Bot, justifiable? No. But it goes some way to help understand why it exists. While there is a place for tools to stop genuine harrasment and abuse (as outlined legally), we should not in doing so build tools that simply insulate people from things they don't want to hear. Before the internet, it was easier to live inside your own little bubble, and just seek out things that confirmed your own biases and beliefs. Or worse, get others to do it for you. The internet has changed that, and in the long term it will be a change for the better. 

    Ideologies that have traditionally had tight control over what you could see and hear, such as Mormonism and Scientology, are in trouble thanks to tools like Twitter. Many of those who have left have undoubtably went through a painful process. After all religion can be a huge part of a person's identity. 

    While some religions want to impose blasphemy laws to counter this, the debate we are seeing waged now over what "trolls" are is the same debate being played out on a smaller stage. Everyone is potentially another person's troll. The Block Bot is not just a tool to protect people from harassment, as it sold, but to turn down the volume of ideological opponents. When you outsource the task of deciding what you get to see and hear to others, don't be surprised if they abuse that position. 

    Edit: Fixed some factual errors around origins of #FTBullies hashtag.  
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