Don’t drain the moat, Twitter. #RestoreTheBlock

Google definition of "block" as a verb

What does “block” really mean, anyway? A cursory Googling bears out the definition above: “make the movement or flow in […] difficult or impossible,” “put an obstacle in the way of,” “restrict the use or conversion of,” or “hinder or stop the movement or action of.”  According to Twitter, on the other hand, “block” just means “blindfold oneself.”

Twitter’s block function has never been perfect. In the old days, blocking a user did not prevent them from tagging you in tweets or signing out of Twitter to view your tweets (if your profile was public). However, blocking someone at least used to kick them from following you and added an extra step if they wished to continue accessing your tweets. Twitter’s newly announced changes to their block function mean that this step is no longer necessary; blocking a user does not prevent them from following you, viewing your timeline while signed in, or interacting with you in any way.

As Zerlina Maxwell points out, this means that harassers can now retweet a user who has blocked them and incite their own followers to join in the fun. It also means that the only way to prevent an abusive user from following you is to set your account to “private.” Many astute Twitter users like Hijabinist and‘s Trudy and have pointed out that this creates a chilling, silencing effect for the voices of marginalized folks who are most vulnerable to harassment and least represented in mainstream discourse.

There are many reasons to set one’s account to “private” and it’s a personal choice. But is it really a “choice” when folks who deal with online violence like stalking, threats and harassment are told that going private is the only way to control – at any level – their contact with an aggressor? Is fair to remove people’s access to a public platform, and all its tangible social, personal, political and economic benefits, for reasons they cannot control (i.e. another person’s abusive behaviour)? Some people’s jobs revolve around the ability to tweet publicly. Should they change careers because of another person’s abusive behaviour?

In cases of abusive behaviour, the old policy at least placed the (admittedly mild) consequences in the abuser’s court: “you now must face an extra hurdle to access this person’s content, and you will not have the ability to retweet it.” The current policy places consequences for abusive behaviour in the target’s court: “deal with this person’s stalking or cease your participation in a major online public square while your aggressor continues to enjoy a public platform.” There is something about this that smacks profoundly of blaming the victim.

Unsurprisingly, no shortage of Twitter users (almost entirely men so far) have come at me with pompous assertions that it makes sense to loosen the policy because of the old block function’s shortcomings. I can’t even begin to address the flaws with the argument that “Harassers have always been able to log out and view your tweets, so it makes total sense to remove the necessity of logging out at all”, though Ana Mardoll does a decent job of it. The old policy was not a fortified wall protecting against online harassment, but it was a moat of sorts. Easily passable, sure, but many would look at the inconvenience of getting their clothes wet and say “ugh, to hell with it.”

Some folks have suggested the change is benevolent because it clears up a false sense of security some people may have felt by blocking someone. But why wouldn’t Twitter simply clear up the misinformation about the old block function? Twitter seems to have no problem being clear about what blocking does and doesn’t do now, after the policy change. Could they not have made a public statement to ensure users were aware of the old block function’s limitations, instead of applying a change that favours abusers? The old block function may never have been a fortified wall, but that does not in any way justify draining the moat.

For me, privacy rests on two key principles: consent (I know what I am getting into and have the opportunity to say no) and control (to share what I want with whom I want and prevent contact with who I wish). If my only opportunity to say “no” is to say nothing at all, that’s not really consent. If my only opportunity for control is to disappear, that’s not really control.

Goldie Taylor hits the nail on the head when she says “Privacy should not require fully closed or fully open. All social networks should be ‘selectively permeable’ with user control.” General PSA for mansplainers telling me that “Twitter is a public space! Either deal with being vulnerable to anyone who wants to contact you, go private or GTFO”: online privacy does not have to be an all-or-nothing game. And an imperfect mode of personal protection is not a valid argument for no mode of personal protection at all.

The new Twitter block policy is yet another example of how institutions and organizations (including social media platforms) typically reflect dominant societal views. In this case, the dominant societal view is that the onus for preventing abusive behaviour rests with the person being abused. This view holds especially true when the target of abuse is marginalized on the grounds of race, gender, sexuality, physical or mental dis/ability, gender expression, etc. Perhaps if more of these traditionally marginalized voices were involved in conceiving and building the tools we use to communicate with one another, those dominant societal views might change. But it seems that Twitter has a long way to go in that regard. In the meantime, we’re left with a “choice” between total vulnerability and forced silence.

Update: In response to public outcry, Twitter reversed the changes discussed in this article. Massive props to Suey Park, who created the #RestoreTheBlock hashtag, and everyone who participated.