Block lists are no substitute for moderation: Twitter sucks

Previously, I posted that you should be ready to have a block list. This is 100% true. Go do that now.

Ok, a block list can ameliorate the worst excesses of hate mobs and you should have one, but it’s not a silver bullet.

Ok, first let me start off with a confession: I used extremely intemperate language when tweeting at a corporate account. I regret this action. Further context will be forthcoming in a later post. Regrettably, my intemperate post was screen capped:

That’s the tweet that set off several hours of fun as people dropped by to call me names back. You can see that it was liked 430 times and retweeted 279 times.

To stem the flow of abuse, the most obvious actions would be to block all of the people who ‘liked’ it, all of the people who retweeted it, and, to really stem the tide, all the followers of the people who retweeted it – as these are the people who will see it and come be mean to me.

If only it were so simple.

I’m sorry, Dave. I can’t let you do that.

This list of people to block is literally thousands of people. The only way to do it is via a script. However, there are problems:

API – Likers

The Twitter API does not give me access to the likers. I can get a few of the most recent ones via the the website, but none in an automated script.

API – Retweeters

I can only get the 100 most recent retweeters.

API – Speed

The Twitter API lets me do around 180 things in an hour. I wrote a script to block all the retweeters and their followers. It’s been running more than 24 hours. It’s not even a quarter of the way through.

Block Limit

I just exported my block list from Twitter and it’s at 25000 people. I exported it again bit later after more blocking and it was still at 25000 people. Block together also shows that’s how many people I’ve got blocked. Which would appear to mean that my old blocks are quietly disappearing as I add new ones. Checking back on some of my most alarming early blocks, I can see this is not the case. However, the export limit means that I can’t share a complete block list with the other person targeted.

You Can’t Block Everyone

Milo, a major instigator of harassment, has 154K followers. A few days ago, he tweeted this:

His followers will understand this to be a call to action.

As it happens, the account @BlockAllTwerps is running a script, blocking everyone who tweeted or retweeted that post and their followers.

It will tweet again when it’s done. Which will probably be in a few weeks. And, apparently, the block list will be impossible to export.

Milo can reach over a hundred thousand people instantly, but blocking by discovering relationships is rate limited and blocking by sharing lists is capped.

This Sucks

There are a lot of things Twitter could try to sort out their abuse problem, but this is what they picked. Blocking is a terrible model. The most glaring problem being that it puts the onus on the person being harassed. The technical issues just highlight the failure of the model.

Blocking on Twitter – a guide for normal users

Stop! Before you scroll past thinking, ‘this doesn’t effect me.’ It doesn’t until it does. A friend of mine recently had a a mob descend for tweeting ‘wow’ at me. Read on:

Last Friday, I was minding my own business participating in a wee bit of a twitter pile-on, which may or may not be ironic. Anyway, I’ll cover this more in a later post, but a few important things happened.

Somebody with a LOT of followers retweeted me, due to agreement. Then somebody, who has an influential follower, screen capped my tweet, adding some negative commentary. And then the influential follower, who directs large hordes of angry twitter mobs, retweeted that.

Hordes of twitter mobs, in this instance, meant, according to Twitter’s metrics, about 35k people. Some of them were people who came by to ‘like’ my comment, who saw it because of the prominent approval. Much more noticeable were the people who came by to complain.

Also caught in the crossfire was a friend of mine from Real Life who replied to my tweet with ‘wow’. Her reply got caught in the screen grab, entirely incidentally. My twitter presence is vaguely gender ambiguous, but hers is not. Women are fair targets to online mobs (as far as the mobs are concerned). So even if you don’t tweet any political statements and just reply to a friend, you can still get drowned in a mob.

What to do when it happens to you

Be prepared

If you use Twitter like I did until friday, you’ve got a few spam accounts blocked, but your block list is mostly unused. You have, perhaps, given no thought to block management. If a mob notices you, however, your approach to this may change.

There exists an app called Block Together. It is really useful because it allows users to share block lists. You can get a list of people with a history of mobbing and block them.

The only downside of this app is that it takes a few hours between joining it and it working. Ergo, join now. Perhaps mobs will never notice you. The app will quietly do nothing, aside from remembering the spammers you occasionally block. But if you need it, it will be ready to go.

When you’re noticed by a mob

Others, smarter and more experienced than me have written more about this. This is what I did for a one-off attack.

  1. Sign up for Block Together
  2. Subscribe a list that contains the kind of people who are attacking you. If you see a lot of people describing themselves either as Nazis, as ‘egalitarians’ or as ‘Gamers’, Wil Wheaton’s list is a good pick.
  3. While the event is ongoing add this block list. Remove it when the coast is clear. It blocks too many people for regular use, but is a good emergency measure.

The dispassionate response, of course, is to set your notifications only to people you know and to shut the computer and go have a cup of tea and read a nice book. This is the approach I’ve taken when a small number of people show up to complain, but a large number is so overwhelming that this reaction does not sem reasonable wile the event is ongoing.

You could decide to take your account private until things blow over. The advantage of this is that haters cannot reply to the tweet they don’t like. The disadvantage is that they will still tweet at you. People who have experience launching campaigns against individuals don’t reweet you. They tweet a picture of your tweet. That screen grab means that mobs can still see who you are and why they should be enraged at you. The other disadvantage in going private is that this does silence you, even if only temporarily. They will see it as a victory.

Responding to hate tweets

Do not reply. The minimised logic is that this is ‘feeding the trolls’ – they enjoy the attention. This is partially true, but it’s the more minor concern. Some of the trolls will respond to your attention by becoming extremely alarming or dangerous in Real Life. If only 1% of a hate mob are people who are going to actually make you worried for your safety, in 35k people, that’s 350 scary people. Perhaps one of them lives in your city? Don’t accidentally feed that troll. Just block everyone involved in the hate-tweet:

  1. Expand the tweet to find out who liked it. Block all the likers.
  2. Block everyone who retweeted it.
  3. Report the tweet if it’s vile enough that Twitter support may care.
  4. Block the person who tweeted it in the first place

And, in between taking these actions, keep your mentions on people you follow only and have some tea.

It is actually impossible to respond to things via blocking in real time, so do take a step back and block at your leisure. This isn’t your fault.


Sign up for Block Together now, so it can jump to your aid rapidly.