BBC Newsnight’s anti-trolling fail (Update: Reporter gone)

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.

  15 comments for “BBC Newsnight’s anti-trolling fail (Update: Reporter gone)

  1. August 1, 2013 at 3:01 PM

    Reminds me of the good old days:

    … may they never come again. 🙂

  2. August 1, 2013 at 3:59 PM

    I made the blockbot list which amuses me to no end. The most I have done is retweeting some messages that don’t fit in with the A+ group think. Perhaps I should contact the bbc as well.

  3. August 1, 2013 at 5:13 PM

    “Here comes the future and you can’t run from it,
    “If you’ve got a blacklist I want to be on it”

    [Billy Bragg, “Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards”, Aug 1988, Go! Discs]

  4. August 1, 2013 at 5:29 PM

    “Men are raised to hate women.” *blink blink*

  5. Eve
    August 1, 2013 at 5:44 PM

    Bob, men have clearly been raised to hate women because they make offensive, sexist blanket statements about 50% of the population. Oh, wait.

  6. spookyparadigm
    August 1, 2013 at 6:01 PM

    Hyperbole, but it sums up the ratcheting nicely.

  7. August 1, 2013 at 10:30 PM

    Sheesh…any group will have its pompous and self-important people who can’t handle any sort of disagreement, and something like this makes it far too easy to build a thought blockade around yourself. One big problem I’ve long talked about in the new online communities is that we can end up echo chambers, just talking to ourselves and reassuring ourselves rather than challenging ourselves and exposing ourselves to new ideas. It’s an ideological and philosophical cloister. Anyway, yes, things like this are too liable for abuse, and yet I see folks talking about protecting themselves from the “annoying people.” Hellooo, LIFE is annoying. There are people I love and agree with who I find annoying from time to time. Why don’t they just dig themselves their intellectual bomb shelters and leave the world to the rest of us?

  8. August 1, 2013 at 11:28 PM

    It was definitely shoddy reporting.

  9. Mikko
    August 2, 2013 at 3:27 AM

    So my mother raised me to hate women ?

  10. August 2, 2013 at 7:44 AM

    Thanks for the link. I felt compelled to blog about it even though I usually avoid controversies – after all my blog is “skeptical software tools” and The Block Bot (whether you like it or not) is intended as a piece of software to be used by skeptics (or atheists, whatever – one argument at a time please).

  11. August 3, 2013 at 1:13 AM

    The claim by the BBC that “At no stage in the reports were any individuals named as being on block bot’s list” is a nonsense. A screen cap was tweeted by one Rhys Morgan – funnily enough, a keen proponent of the blockbot:

  12. August 3, 2013 at 11:50 PM

    I’m on there, as a Level 3 blockee, and I know why. Here’s my commentary. And, where’s FtB co-creator Ed Brayton, ardent civil libertarian of the past, on this issue? AWOL so far, it seems.

  13. August 5, 2013 at 5:57 PM

    The reporter is leaving Newsnight.

    There is no correlation mentioned to the outcry from this story (that even BBC admitted was poor). But, he leaves to become the “culture and digital editor” for the rival station? I think BBC got a good deal. This guy is clueless about culture and digital stuff considering his work on that last story.

  14. August 5, 2013 at 6:14 PM

    I’m on that blockbot list because, *sob* I don’t care, I’m so proud.

  15. August 17, 2013 at 7:21 AM

    One point not picked up yet was the Beeb flashing that readable screen of names, combined with commentary about ‘trolls’ and ‘harrassment’.

    When ITV flashed a card listing alleged paedophiles for a second or two they ended up paying £110k in libel damages.

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