Twitter caused quite a stir late Thursday regarding a change in its block policy, provoking outrage from victims of online harassment and advocates. The new policy, which would have allowed blocked users to keep following and retweeting their blockers, was reversed hours after its debut.
But while the decision to reverse the change was welcomed, it may not go far enough for those most vulnerable to violent threats and harassment — specifically women, people of color, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community.
Women took to Twitter soon after the announcement to protest the change, explaining they used the block function to shield themselves from rape and death threats. In a petition against the new policy, several users shared examples of how they had been stalked and threatened on Twitter. “As a public person who uses the medium for my work, I am very concerned because stalkers and abusers will now be able to keep tabs on their victims, and while there was no way to prevent it 100 percent before, Twitter should not be in the business of making it easier to stalk someone,” wrote Zerlina Maxwell, a political analyst and feminist writer who started the petition. Maxwell received hundreds of rape and death threats after an appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program earlier this year.
“We never want to introduce features at the cost of users feeling less safe,” Michael Sippey, Twitter’s vice president of product wrote in an announcement Thursday night. He also mentions that Twitter is dissatisfied with the “old” block option, which keeps blocked users from seeing any activity of the blockers, saying it’s “not ideal, largely due to the retaliation,” which sometimes involves blocked users recruiting their followers to harass the blockers.However, to some, the fact that Twitter launched the policy in the first place smacks of insensitivity to female users.
“It’s always a safe bet that if you put money on dudes in tech or media corporate hierarchies underestimating or not considering the needs of women, you’ll always beat the house,” Jenn Pozner, executive director of Women in Media and News. Pozner monitors online harassment of women and has experienced repeated rape and death threats. “Even in the way they discussed why they were making their change, [their] entire mindset was, ‘Let’s coddle harassers who are pissed off and fix something that, even nominally, makes their lives difficult.”
Despite recanting the block policy, users feel Twitter should make a more concerted effort to protect users from online abuse. “I’m pleased that Twitter decided to revert back to the ‘old’ blocking policy, but I would really like to see them improve certain aspects of their reporting policy,” Maxwell said.
Those changes should include a “very clear policy” on abusive tweets that’s actively enforced, Pozner said. Twitter currently has an abusive behavior policy that prohibits “direct, specific threats of violence against others,” a characterization that omits more generalized expressions of violence that still make many targets feel unsafe. The network also has recently rallied against online abuse by holding a video contest under the #ByeByeBullying hashtag and supporting Bullying Awareness Week.
In addition to the now restored blocking option, there should be a “mute” option, which would temporarily filter out someone from your feed and mentions without fully blocking them, Maxwell suggested. Other changes should include a spam reporting function, as well as more aggressive enforcement and follow-up for the current reporting policies and reports, Maxwell said.
“Right now, abusers really can just harass you with impunity. And while no solution is 100 percent, the frequency of threats and harassment that people—and women in particular—deal with on a daily basis is unacceptable,” she added.
Pozner blamed this lax policy on an indifference to women. “They have been told directly by their female users in a ton of different ways that there is a long-term problem that female users have with violent harassment . “I’ve stopped reporting stuff to Twitter because nothing ever happens. They never did anything about it.”
Reigning in threats of abuse, specifically rape, has been an ongoing struggle for Twitter and other social networking sites. Twitter recently agreed to ease its reporting requirements after users complained that it was too hard to report repeated rape threats. The site also promised over the summer to take these abusive tweets more seriously and streamline the reporting process.