Follow Buddies and Block Buddies: A Simple Proposal to Improve Civility, Control, and Privacy on Twitter

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Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
January 4, 2017

The 2016 election has put squarely on the public agenda a series of questions related to the norms of social media, everything from the proliferation of fake news on Facebook to the trolling culture of Twitter. These questions are not new. The culture of abuse online towards women, for example, is a matter about which one of us wrote a book. But over the last few months, the concerns—spurred in part by a president-elect and his followers who participate actively in Twitter abuse of opponents and critics—have vaulted into the mainstream.

The problems vary significantly by social media platform. On Twitter, the pressing issue is civility: values of free expression and individual user freedom often get pitted against norms of decency and the ability to participate online free of harassment and abuse.

Consider the attacks on journalists between August 2015 and July 2016. When neo-Nazi trolls attacked well-known writers on Twitter with anti-Semitic death threats and images of their (or their children’s) faces photoshopped into ovens, the goal was to terrorize and silence. Sometimes, the attacks succeeded. New York Times editor Jonathan Weisman suspended his Twitter account and switched to Facebook for a time after a cyber mob descended on his Twitter feed. The harrowing account of National Review writer David French’s experience of Twitter abuse as a result of his opposition to Trump is another example.

The obvious reason why Weisman switched to Facebook is that random strangers can’t contact users and attack them there without having gotten through an initial screening process. Non-friends cannot directly contact users on Facebook until the user has given the green light to interaction by accepting a friend request. That initial screening process substantially diminishes the possibility of drive-by attacks, though it also prevents unexpected, positive interactions with strangers.

By contrast, Twitter has no such speed bump to interactions. Anyone can engage with any user: Put an @ in front of someone’s user handle and you have their attention. That can be a very good thing. A diversity of interactions can yield rich discussions, unexpected insights, and pointed feedback. Yet it also allows angry cyber mobs to descend upon users with threats, defamation, privacy invasions, and intimidating slurs. Right now, on Twitter, each troll gets at least one free shot at each user and has to be blocked individually, which is both time consuming and onerous if multiple individuals are targeting individuals.

Read the full piece at Lawfare Blog