The Block Bot: Dangerous, Damaging and Definitely Not a Joke

by Victoria A. Brownworth

 In his poem “The Second Coming,” which is about politics gone wildly astray, W.B.Yeats wrote, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

“Mere” anarchy. Because, as we know, anarchy–the most narcissistic and deadly of all political stances–is what happens when one group decides the rule of law can be ignored. War is anarchy. Rape is anarchy. All the isms are anarchic. Lack of protection for anyone marginalized is anarchic.

Yeats continued the poem: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

“The worst are full of passionate intensity.” Think the UK’s Nigel Farage, the US’s Ted Cruz, France’s Marine Le Pen.

Think The Block Bot.

It’s difficult to calculate the damage done within the stranglehold bad politics have on women and other marginalized people. It’s equally difficult, as Yeats puts so succinctly, to discern the impact of subsequent bad policies which evolve  from such bad politics.

It’s easy to point to theocracies and the obliterating force those nations have on dissenters–and by dissenters I do not mean merely people who object to the political policies attendant to theocracies, but the people who are not allowed to exist under such policies–notably women, non-believers, lesbians and gay men (homosexuality being punishable by imprisonment and/or death in every theocracy in the world today), journalists attempting to tell the truth like the Saudi Arabian blogger, Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes in January and ten years in prison for writing about the Charlie Hebdo killings.

It is also easy to point to oppressive right-wing politics and policies. In the US on March 25 the Indiana state legislature overwhelmingly passed an anti-gay law. Over the past five years, a quarter of the states have passed restrictive abortion legislation in contravention of the federal law of Roe v. Wade. In the UK, on March 25 it was revealed that the NHS has been systematically denying older women life-saving mammograms and other prophylactic treatment for breast cancer. There have been massive benefits cuts instituted by the Tory government.

We like to think–those of us who consider ourselves political progressives–that left-wing policies are somehow non-restrictive, that left-wing politics make the world a better, not worse, place. We think, collectively, that it’s really okay if France declares that all religious emblems be forsworn, including the hijab, because, well, religion is oppressive and France is a secular society. But for the Muslim woman who wears hijab by choice, isn’t this the state making the decision for her–just as theocratic countries  make the decision for her that she must wear hijab?

Not surprisingly, whether it’s the politics of the right or the politics of the left, it is women who are the most common and obvious victims. A woman being stoned to death for going out on her own without a male family member accompanying her is obvious. A lesbian’s face on a dart board at an LGBT conference in Leeds, perhaps not so much.

And then there’s The Block Bot.

Two Saturdays ago I was reading my morning news on Twitter. Interspersed among the various news sites I read were tweets from people I follow and people they follow. I saw a funny tweet about Jeremy Clarkson posted by comedian Graham Linehan. I hit retweet and received the Twitter notification that I was blocked by this user.

What?

I wasn’t quite sure even who Linehan was. His name rang a distant bell for me–I would later be reminded that he authored the Father Ted series, which I loved. I went to his Twitter profile and saw he had 450,000 followers.

How had he found the time to block me, who had never had an exchange with him and wasn’t sure who he even was?

So I tweeted about it. And Linehan responded. He read some of my tweets and unblocked me. Apparently I was not the horrifying gorgon he had presumed without ever having read a word of my writing–not even a tweet.

But he had, as he informed me, used The Block Bot.

So, all was well between me and Linehan. I followed him, because he was so gracious. He followed me because he was, likely, embarrassed.

In the course of this exchange, however, all my regular Twitter companions, women I have daily or weekly exchanges with, discovered that they, too, were blocked by Linehan. All without ever having had an exchange with him.

I have no problem with the blocking tool of Twitter. Once I discovered it, which was, alas, a  full six months and dozens of MRA pile-ons into my Twitter education, I employed it as it should be employed—against abusive harassing trolls.

But The Block Bot is an entirely different entity. It pretends to be a Twitter tool, using the guise of Twitter support, when in fact it is just a random group of self-appointed arbiters of other people’s speech. Originally created by “@ool0n to copy @aratina’s #BlockSaturday” The Block Bot professes to “protect” users from the worst of Twitter trolls: It stipulates that users will not have to worry about “what trolls are trolling the twittersphere.” It states that  “bigots, assholes and fools” will be “removed from your timeline seamlessly. Hopefully this will make being a feminist-atheist-skeptic on Twitter a more pleasant experience and remove some of the harassment that is usually directed your way.”

Theoretically it sounds useful–especially for feminists, considering that every study in the past five years of Internet usage has found that women face up to 100 times as much abuse as men on social media and that Twitter is the prime offender because, as Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said in a 3 February 2015 interview, “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls.”

UK feminist Caroline Criado-Perez famously won her case against two of the hundreds of Twitter abusers who threatened her during her 2013 campaign to get a woman on English banknotes. Isabella Sorley and John Nimmo were sentenced to brief jail terms for their violent harassment and threats against the feminist activist.

Other women, myself among them, have not been able to access even Criado-Perez’s small victory for feminists on social media. Most of us, if we are at all visible and especially those of us who are journalists, receive daily harassment. Some of it is merely annoying, but some of it–violent threats, rape threats–is at best outrageous, at worst, frightening. I have been threatened repeatedly. My friend Jean Hatchet, who started the petition against Ched Evans, has been threatened repeatedly. Criado-Perez herself continues to get online abuse, despite having the Met on speed dial.

In that kind of atmosphere who wouldn’t want surcease from the attacks?

Except that is not how The Block Bot works at all. Rather, TBB has a group of mostly white male and some white trans women administrators, all but one of whom are anonymous, and their primary targets are feminists. There seems to be a special emphasis on lesbians. Criado-Perez herself is blocked by TBB, as am I, as is every lesbian and feminist journalist or outspoken feminist on Twitter.

As someone who is on Twitter under my own name, I am, like Glosswitch, Sarah Ditum, Gia Milinovich, Julie Bindel, Beatrix Campbell and Mary Beard, a regular target for MRAs. I am also, like those women, blocked by TBB for offences known only to TBB administrators.

There are three levels of offence. Level one is for the “most abusive and worst trolls on Twitter.” Levels two and three are for lesser offenders. TBB administrators troll the TLs of feminists on a daily if not hourly basis and report anything they deem unseemly.

Most of us–there are hundreds of names on TBB–who have been “listed” have been forced to suffer in silence because first rule of Block Bot is don’t talk about Block Bot or it will intensify the trolling of your TL.

Some of my feminist friends on Twitter find it all a big joke. They regularly call it “hilarious” and “idiocy” and say “no one pays attention to it.”

That’s patently untrue. And while I totally understand why the majority of feminists are anonymous on Twitter, for those of us who are, for professional reasons, on Twitter under our own names, the consequences of being a level one on TBB can be dramatic and are most definitely damaging.

In recent weeks several famous men have been added to TBB registry, among them Professor Brian Cox and Richard Dawkins. Cox was added for daring to stand up for his wife, Gia Milinovich and Dawkins was listed because he said something that some Block Bot administrator found offensive.

Dawkins, used to being able to speak when and how he chooses, no matter how offensive many might find it, as with his recent statements about Down Syndrome babies, noted that while he didn’t especially care about being blocked by individuals, he took umbrage at being libeled.

Welcome to my world and that of at least 100 outspoken feminists in the UK, US and Australia who are victims of The Block Bot. Lying about women, especially feminists, is the Block Bot’s stock in trade. But no one cared until famous men became the subject of the slander. When it was just one more no-platforming tool against feminists, it was acceptable to pretty much everyone except Brian Cox, who is obviously the kind of husband most women would want under the circumstances of being a public woman being abused daily by strangers.

If it were “merely” the anarchy of online abuse, that would be one thing. Most feminists have learned to cope with the daily attacks. But when you are not anonymous, The Block Bot translates into something else: Professional damage.

I know I was not alone in cheering when The Block Bot was put under legal scrutiny because of the addition of Dawkins and his refusal to just accept it. The Block Bot has caused me professional damage and personal grief. As Gia and I discussed a year or more ago, Google has embraced The Block Bot. Now when either of us—she quite famous, me far less so, but definitely well-known for my journalism and books–Googles our own names, or anyone else does, despite our many achievements, all of which were worked for, The Block Bot descriptives take pride of place. Which is professionally damaging and far from a joke. For years Googling my name brought up my journalistic awards and credentials and the books I have published. Now the third listing is The Block Bot slander.

If I were a troll who harassed and abused people online, I might shrug all this off. Trolls seem not to care. They put things like “your worst nightmare” in their Twitter profiles and think that’s normal behavior (it’s not).

But I’m not and never have been a troll or abusive and I resent being labeled–or libeled–in that way. The Block Bot also has me listed as ableist, even though I was diagnosed at 30 with MS and have been a disability activist for years, publishing the first book on lesbians and disability, “Restricted Access” and running a listserv for lesbians with MS for 15 years. I have also battled breast cancer (which one of The Block Bot administrators finds hilarious and jokes about) and wrote an award-winning book about that, “Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic.”

Like every feminist I know on Twitter I have also been labeled a “TERF,” a term I never heard of before two years ago. I’m not trans exclusionary and I’m not even sure if I am a radical feminist, although I certainly believe that gender has destroyed the lives of women since we started walking upright and the sooner it is dismantled, the better for every woman on the planet, one in three of whom will be a victim of male violence in her lifetime, as I have been. But it’s an invented term meant to instill fear in gender-critical women and trans women and silence them.

Which is the entire point of The Block Bot: Silencing women. Truth is the first casualty of The Block Bot–which is always the case with fascism. And make not mistake: The Block Bot is fascist. The thing is, it would be fascist even if it were applied as the initial squib suggests–solely against men who hate women and all they stand for. Yet instead The Block Bot is employed almost wholly against feminists with the decision of who gets silenced made arbitrarily and whimsically, vituperatively and dangerously by a small group of, well, fascists.

The Block Bot’s days may be numbered. With any luck at all–which women rarely get when up against white male privilege–the libelous administrators will be challenged in a court of law and forced to get all their many lies and calumny off Twitter and off Google. The damage, however, has been done to many of us.

Silencing people–especially women who are marginalized by society and lesbians who are marginalized still further–is not a progressive tactic. Free speech–with all its many pitfalls–is essential to democratic society. It wouldn’t matter if all the things being said about every woman blackballed by The Block Bot were true: We get to speak. If you don’t like what we say, make the effort to engage us individually and block us the same way. Or simply ignore us altogether. But do not lie about us to further your own agenda. That is indeed libel. And it absolutely must stop.

 

Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer and the author and editor of nearly 30 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting in May 2014. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and a columnist and contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review. Her reporting and commentary has appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer. Her book, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural & historical fiction. Her novel, Ordinary Mayhem was published in February 2015. @VABVOX

3 thoughts on “The Block Bot: Dangerous, Damaging and Definitely Not a Joke”

  1. Excellent writing. I used to joke about and ridicule the BB…after all, humour is often a very effective way to negate the power of something fearful. It was not until I understood the difference between the silencing of anonymous accounts and named women being slandered all over the internet that I stopped finding it funny. We all know that whatever is on the internet is there for ever and so whatever happens to the BB will not undo the damage that has been done. I hope you and all the other women who have been so maligned get justice.

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