My Thoughts on the Block Bot, as a User and a Member of the Blocking Team

I was recently contacted by an American journalist, keen to speak with someone involved “at the coal face”, as it were, of Twitter’s block bot, both as a user of the tool and as a member of the blocking team, which I now am.

For those unfamiliar with it, the Block Bot is a crowd sourced tool that will, if you allow it to, block a list of people on twitter. These are divided into three categories – level 1 for people who should probably be banned if Twitter’s abuse process worked correctly, level 2 for people who are generally abusive but it’s not their raison d’être, and level 3 for people who show abusive behaviour through ignorance or refusal to acknowledge their own privilege in ways that cause distress to marginalised groups.

It won’t block anyone you already follow, and the list is crowd sourced, peer-reviewed and constantly being examined to ensure people are placed correctly. If adding someone to the list would prove controversial amongst the bot’s users for some reason, they are generally not added.

Anyway, here’s what I said to the journalist (fixed a couple of grammatical errors).

As a somewhat visible trans woman, being for a few years the only openly trans elected politician in the UK (Im not currently serving), and a somewhat outspoken one on issues of trans equality, I have attracted a lot of attention, and some of it has been quite negative.

In February to May of this year, I was subject to an offline harassment campaign where numerous people made vexatious complaints to my party, and to my council, all of which were dismissed, but which had a very negative toll on my mental health, requiring me to take antidepressants and tranquillisers for some time. The harassers were openly discussing their campaign on Twitter, and the people involved continue to try and attract my attention, and engage in the technique known as gaslighting and getting under my skin in other ways. Some of them even turned up to picket London DykeMarch in June because I was one of the podium speakers. It gets a bit much when social media bullies start turning up to events one is at to harass!

Unusually, compared to the harassment most women experience on social media, where the perpetrators are men, the perpetrators of the transphobic harassment I’ve been experiencing have been mostly (but not exclusively) women.

I blocked most of them manually, but a common technique of harassers is to create new accounts and try again from there, so it was difficult to keep up, and the ones that got through were often very distressing. I can sometimes look at what these people are saying, as long as it’s on my own terms, and when I’m able to walk away, but to have them impose themselves, when I may be having a bad day or whatever, is not good.

I signed up for the blockbot, after being sceptical of it for some time, but found that the blockers, most of whom are women, are generally sympathetic to the harassment transgender women face from the transphobic fringes of the feminist movement. As a result the bot was a good match, and I increasingly discovered, some time after the fact, that people had been trying to harass me and the bot had already blocked them for me.

My mental health is much better now. Some of that is because I’m no longer in office and face less stress generally, but undoubtedly some of it is not having to deal with constant harassment, or exposed to constant microaggressions associated with being a member of a minority community (people persisting in those tend to get blocked too, but at a lower severity level – you choose which severity level you sign up to). I have since joined the team of people who maintain the block list and decide when to add new blocks, and they’re a great bunch of people.

I know the idea of a block bot is proving very controversial in some quarters, but I don’t hesitate to recommend it now. It has played a significant part in keeping Twitter as a usable platform for me, and I can only see that as a good thing.

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