While I’ve not been feeling well, I’ve had a set of questions sitting in my inbox. Being ill creates its own time dilation, so this all seems very long ago, but as I recall, the original idea was to find someone who approves of The Block Bot to answer some questions about it for an article. I figure that if I answer them here, I’ll actually get this done.
Q: What is the brief history of this Block Bot?
As this is the Atheism+ Block Bot, it needs to be understood in the context of the history of Atheism+. For a few years now, several people have made efforts to make organized atheism more accommodating of diversity, with particular success in the area of feminism. Pushback has come in the same form that it’s taken in other traditionally male-dominated online spaces: harassment and accusations that such efforts amount to an authoritarian takeover of these spaces.
In response, Jennifer McCreight said, and I paraphrase, “Okay. Fine. You keep your spaces. We’ll have ours, where we can combine atheism, humanism, and skepticism.” That was apparently not to be allowed either. Places identified as Atheism+ have never gone without challenges from people who think that all atheist spaces must also be their spaces. In less than a month, McCreight was harassed into a relapse of clinical depression and off the internet. Much of that harassment happened through Twitter, then moved on to other Atheism+-identified or -friendly people.
Q: What was the goal of the Block Bot?
I’ll quote from the first question on the Block Bot FAQ:
This was originally created by @ool0n to copy @aratina’s #BlockSaturday idea and automate it. Basically Aratina has been identifying general bigots, assholes and fools and tweeting their ids with the #BlockSaturday tag so they can be blocked by his followers and anyone following the hash tag #BlockSaturday. So basically this bot will now automate the blocking for anyone that signs up, so you don’t need to check the #BlockSaturday hashtag or worry about what trolls are trolling the twittersphere -> they 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.
In short, it was set up so that each person on Twitter likely to be targeted didn’t have to individually see a large volume of annoyance before blocking the accounts responsible.
Q: How are people added to the bot?
There is a detailed description in the FAQ, but to summarize, there are a small number of people who monitor certain topics or hashtags, or who interact frequently with people likely to be harassed on Twitter. When they spot problem interactions, they can tweet to the bot to add users.
Q: Level 3 seems to have a # of fairly well known atheist bloggers on this list who do not have a known history of trolling or cyberstalking. My research into this bot reveals a randomness regarding how people are added to this bot especially at level 3. Your thoughts on the different levels and why people are added to the lists?
Level 1 of the bot is for impostor accounts, accounts that send images meant to shock, accounts that behave threateningly, and several accounts run by one particularly obsessive individual whose behavior has been mentioned in multiple news articles. Level 2 is for people who have worked to harm people they consider to be part of Atheism+ (whether they are or not) by spreading lies about those people or attempting to interfere with those people’s employment. Level 3 is largely for the tedious. There is probably the most diversity in this group. It encompasses people who continue to spout the same old arguments that have been refuted repeatedly elsewhere, people who can’t be bothered to find out what Atheism+ is or isn’t but who want to talk about it anyway, people who won’t drop an argument for days or weeks or even years at this point. In essence, they’re the people who will take up significant time or attention you could instead use on something productive. People can, of course, follow only Level 1 or down to only Level 2 if they wish.
Recently, someone pulled together a list of well-known people on Level 3. In response, I wrote a few posts looking into their behavior in more detail. As a result, two of those people were moved to Level 2 instead. The third had already been independently moved to Level 2 by the Block Bot administrators for the behavior I was cataloging. The good news is that, as more people identify as atheist and write about being atheists, we now have more choices about who to read and pay attention to than we used to.
Q: Why did you choose not to use this bot?
As a blogger, I write about bad arguments. I document them and refute them. I have for years, since before this harassment started. They were just different arguments then. So I want to see how these things travel, how they change, how they don’t.
So far, this is the worst I’ve received from this crowd. I wouldn’t have if I’d been following a Block Bot at the time, but I don’t think it existed then. She’s now on Level 2.
Update: One more follow-up question.
Q: Any comments on the addition of David Silverman/American Atheists to the Block Bot, Level 3 last week? He’s since been removed.
I haven’t seen a lot that’s happened on Twitter in the last week, but it’s my understanding from a distance that Silverman used Twitter to try to tell atheists they need even those allies who are abusive to them. I know he’s capable of much more nuance on the topic, so I blame the medium. I would hope that he’ll stick to better formats for that kind of statement in the future. However, if he doesn’t, I wouldn’t expect that people receiving that abuse would want to follow him there any more than they want to follow Dawkins these days.