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Twitter Critics Say It's Not Sensitive Enough To Cyberbullying

Twitter revoked its new blocking policy after backlash from users.
Leon Neal
AFP/Getty Images
Twitter revoked its new blocking policy after backlash from users.

On Thursday, Twitter introduced — and later in the day, withdrew — a change to its "blocking" policy.

Thursday afternoon, the microblogging site started allowing users who had been blocked to continue to follow, respond to or retweet posts from people who had blocked them.

User response came swiftly. Many were outraged that the change allowed stalkers and abusers open access to their posts.

After seeing the Twitter cognoscenti light up over the issue, Zerlina Maxwell, a feminist freelance writer, started an online petition on Change.org calling on Twitter to restore its old blocking policy. It garnered more than 1,000 signatures within a couple of hours.

Maxwell says she's no stranger to harassment and abuse. In March, she appeared with Fox News' Sean Hannity in a debate about the use of guns to prevent rape.

"I don't, honestly, want you telling me that if I had a gun I wouldn't have been raped, because that's still putting it on me," she told Hannity.

Maxwell says that 5-minute segment elicited hundreds of racist, sexist and threatening Twitter messages that continue to this day.

"I block people probably about 10 times a day," she says.

Jennifer Pozner, executive director of a group called Women in Media & News, says she found out about Twitter's brief change to its blocking policy "sometime in the short window when Twitter lost their mind and temporarily regained it."

Some days she blocks as many as 200 users from contacting her via Twitter, she says, because they send her threatening tweets — "vicious names I'm not allowed to say on NPR's air, many of which threaten rape, some of which threaten murder," she says.

The old system was not perfect. Determined harassers could create new Twitter names — or "handles," as they're known — to get around a block.

Still, Pozner says, the imperfections of the old system are preferable to no protections at all, and she was relieved Twitter responded to the public outcry within hours. But she says it also shows the company's tone-deafness, especially to its female and cyberbullied users.

"Twitter has known for a very long time that women often face extreme harassment, abuse, violent threats and the like," she says. "Instead of responding in a way that would protect their female users' safety — as well as any user's safety — they instead made an incomprehensible move to make harassers' lives easier."

Twitter rescinded the policy in the evening, and went back to making tweets invisible to blocked users.

The company declined to comment to NPR. But in a statement announcing the reversal of its policy, it wrote it never intended to make its users feel unsafe, and that it is trying to strike a balance between openness and safety.

Twitter said reverting to its old approach is not ideal. Some users may want to block users, but others fear the retaliation — on or offline — that comes from users who've been blocked.

"Moving forward, we will continue to explore features designed to protect users from abuse and prevent retaliation," the company said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.
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