Sometimes stuff occurs on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and various online places that we might miss if we aren’t paying attention. But, since we cover questionable claims here, we decided to document this horrendous job of reported done by BBC Newsnight about online trolling that featured a script called the Block Bot. Here is the backstory and here is a post that contains the Newsnight video.
James Billingham lashed up a Twitter bot to automate the process of blocking undesirable people: The Block Bot. It is apparently meant to be a sort of supplement to the user ban lists on sites like Freethought Blogs and Skepchick, helping out right-thinking people by making it easier for them to avoid interacting with certain undesirables when using Twitter.
As noted in this post, there is very good reason to be annoyed with anonymous users being scumbags on Twitter. But, this is not a workable solution. The consequences of such a bot are several: less thinking, more groupthink, unnecessary suspension of accounts.
Frankly, I don’t feel like linking to the video featuring the person who I think is more of a troll than the “trolls” he blocked. While this is mostly taken place among members of the atheist community, I have seen him being vile and nasty online. There is a sense of empowerment in such an ability to name and shame and proponents of the bot were quite high on themselves celebrating exclusions from their circle.
Some who are on the Block Bot without justification and others complained to the BBC producers about the problems with the report. The BBC staff responded to the complaints with this reply:
The article by Paul Mason and Newsnight TV report on 30th July which featured block bot were part of an on-going news story on the use of Twitter and its consequences, which has generated a great deal of debate across all forms of media.
At no stage in the reports were any individuals named as being on block bot’s list, nor were the audience told how the list of names might be obtained. As you are probably aware, the list of names on block bot is updated constantly and numbers many hundreds.
Although the TV script explained that block bot was self-policing, and the report clearly showed on screen that block bot has different levels of blocking, the report could have explained those details more clearly.
In a subsequent report on Newsnight on July 31st, the programme reported the on-going debate on the use of tools like block bot, including the fact that some of those who are blocked by it object to their blocking. Again, no names were mentioned.
Not really the point that names were not mentioned, the site is public and I happen to know a few people on it who in no way would I consider to be abusers. Who are these observers to make this call about who is “abusing” twitter? Sounds like school playground antics, doesn’t it? Some on the list simply declared their disagreement with the point of view and *BAM* were not just blocked by people who didn’t like the exchange. When I commented on the Newsnight YouTube video that this was a skewed story, my comment was labeled “spam”. (I have a YouTube account in perfect standing and I do not spam.) That’s some profoundly uncritical thinking by the people running BlockBot…
Anyway, back to the story, which is, at its core, was about the lack of checking to see if there was any validity to the claims made. The producers of the show did concede that mistakes were made but this is another case of skewed reporting giving a false view. It’s a lot of bullshit. Be skeptical of what you see on TV.
I block trolls and don’t give them the satisfaction of getting me riled up. And you know what? It WORKS. Take a lesson. Also, consider maybe the dissenters had a damn good point to disagree with your views.
Addition: The controversy is acknowledged.
Must read Skeptools blog review of the Block Bot tool: The Block Bot is unsuitable for general use in its present form | Skeptical Software Tools.
Strong technical measures like this demand strong procedures around them, to guard against abuse. They also demand a deep understanding by all involved the full scope of the measures and how to deal with them. Despite the aforementioned transparency, I see a number of policies that are unclear and issues with how this bot is being operated.
The net effect is this bot could easily behave in ways new users don’t expect, and it could be abused. These problems are going to be exacerbated by any influx of new users via the media attention. I’ve been observing the operation of the bot for several months, and I’ve seen evidence that these things are in fact already happening.
Tim Farley presents a very thorough and reasoned assessment of the tool. Take note BBC Newsnight. This is who you should have asked about this tool. Instead, the reporter came off as (and STILL looks) completely clueless.