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How Authoritarian Activists Are Censoring Twitter


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In just under a year, Twitter will celebrate its 10th birthday. The microblogging service is currently the 8th-most visited website on the internet, with over 280 million active users. By offering a free, open platform that allows instantaneous communication to huge audiences, Twitter is arguably the most efficient means of spreading information in the world.


Twitter’s great advantage is its openness. Anyone can join a hashtag at any moment, or send a message to another user on the platform. The only thing that is required for their message to be seen is for others to be watching. Unless there is a breach of the terms of service, there is no top-down editorial control over messages, and no third party stands between a message and its intended recipient(s). Little wonder that activists in authoritarian countries are so enamoured with the platform.


Unfortunately, unrestricted free speech will always have its malcontents. Authoritarian activists using Twitter’s API have found a way to install themselves as de facto moderators for thousands of users. Twitter’s reputation for openness and free discourse may now be under threat.


The past two years have seen the rise of ‘autoblockers’ – shared lists of pre-blocked Twitter users that others can sign up to. The ostensible purposes of these lists is to block ‘abusers and trolls’ so that subscribers do not need to encounter them. However, as we shall see, this is typically a mask for politically-motivated blacklisting.


Two of these tools, the Atheism Plus Block Bot and the GG Autoblocker have attracted over ten thousand subscribers each. Both claim to be simple anti-harassment devices. But a look beneath the surface reveals something much more McCarthyite.


The Block Bot, which we have previously reported on, rose to prominence during the online trolling panic of 2013. It claims to be a one-stop shop for blocking trolls and abusers. In practice, the people added to its lists tended to be activists, academics, bloggers, and ordinary Twitter users who fell on the wrong side of political schisms within Atheism. Richard Dawkins, for example, was added to the list as a ‘rapeapologist’ and a ‘transphobe’, despite being neither of those things. Some have accused the Block Bot of engaging in defamation.


The GG Autoblocker is arguably even worse than the blockbot. Whereas the Block Bot decides who to block based on individual reports, GG Autoblocker uses guilt by association. The autoblocker maintains a list of several blacklisted users, including Breitbart London associate editor Milo Yiannopoulos, and at one point, the feminist academic Christina Hoff Sommers. If other Twitter users follow too many of these individuals, they will be automatically added to the autoblocker. You don’t have to do anything or even say anything to become a target. If you follow the wrong people, you’ll be blocked.



Battling the blockers.

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