Building a Wall Out of Blocks Online
Cartoon by Jef Rouner
Last year I started making sure people who have never directly interacted with me online never would. I started blocking complete and total strangers on social media.
I tackle a lot of controversial targets here at Houston Press, and my best work is usually word-crusades against the cruel and ignorant. I write a lot about denunciations of bigotry, sexism on both the right and the left, mockeries of conspiracy asshattery and even the occasional defense of Congress. Subsequently, I get a lot of hate mail, and I block a lot of Rando Mansirs that show up on my Twitter and Facebook pages.
That's understandable, I'm sure. No reasonable person expects someone to engage with lunatics who open their emails with, "HEY ASSHOLE!" However, over the course of the year, I started doing something else entirely. When I came across comments on the Houston Press Facebook page, I started blocking the various commenters who insisted on slurs, insults and conspiracy theory nonsense, even if the story wasn't mine.
Maybe you read about my friend Emily Snow, who threw a drink in the face of her stalker and which was reported on by my colleague Chris Lane? I went through every comment on that story (ours are tied to Facebook accounts) and blocked every single one even though none of it had anything to do with me directly. I'm a frequent visitor to Anita Sarkeesian's Twitter handle. I periodically go through replies to her posts and block various accounts, refreshing the page until all that is left is valid responses, positive or negative.
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Every once in a while, thanks to Twitter's inability to make sure people you've blocked don't show up in your searches, I'll come across an angry, preemptively blocked person screaming about how unfair it is that I've crossed that person out. That he or she hadn't even done anything to me to warrant it. Behind it all is the sentence "How dare he judge me!"
Here's the problem behind every harasser and every troll on the Internet: They don't realize that individually they do not matter. Any person with an inch of skin can take a random psycho hurling abuse at him or her, but when that person becomes ten, a hundred or a thousand, it is very different. Then it's not some random person, but a wave of harassment and abuse that demands your time and energy.
Over the last year, I've had to have the Harris County Sheriff's Office out to my house to warn them I might be SWATted. I've had to limit my interactions with friends on Twitter because every time I do so, garbage-people with nothing better to do descend to spew hate. I drink too much, feel depressed and in the end just wonder whether humanity is worth bothering with.
Trolls think of this as a symbiotic relationship. When someone writes an article about, say, Samus Aran being trans, they don't take it as a created work. They treat it as an intellectual argument offered for spirited rebuttal. Granted, they don't write their own think pieces. That would be work. Instead, they just try to drown the original idea out under the sheer force of their volume because it's all a game to them. In Troll World, no one really cares about anything.
That takes its toll on people who actually do honestly care about things and who are arguing in good faith. Most journalists and writers are not stirring pots to get a rise out of people or to start shit. They want to advocate, report and change the world for the better. Trolls take that personally because a troll's mentality is based on nothing really mattering. It's the whine of the privileged bully that it's all a joke when they get caught.
So I started building a wall. Person by person, account by account. In the name of my own personal sanity, I took the people who interacted within places I tended to go and just made them disappear. Most of the time they'll never even know they've been banished. It's literally all you can do if you choose to be a public figure who handles his own social media. It's very clear that the legal system cannot and will not help you when it comes to harassment, not even if you're a nationally known case with the FBI actively involved.
All you have is the basic tools social media gives you to avoid bad people. Those tools work fine when one person hates your guts, but when a mob targets you? When they en masse get together and decide to make an example out of you? That's when the systems' inadequacies shine.
This is not about avoiding other points of view. I recently interviewed protestors at Planned Parenthood for a story, and while I'm extremely pro-choice, I was able to find sincerity in their reasoning even if I didn't share their beliefs. You know why? Because they were polite to me.
However, when someone sends a profanity-laden tweet to me in response to an article about violence in media saying that a study in Germany has disproved cultivation theory, I block that person because I know he hasn't read the study or understood it or doesn't have any interest in actually learning. If he is so angry and closed-minded to use things he doesn't actually understand to shout me down, what are the odds he is going to be worth listening to in the future? Not very high.
I block people when I see them being mean to others. I try to put big holes in the chain of hate, like vaccinating a vulnerable populace against the infected so a disease doesn't spread, by subscribing to block lists. Making sure the anger and vitriol don't spread is how you keep a few jerks from becoming a hate mob.
If Twitter and Facebook won't enforce their anti-harassment policies, it falls to us to man the walls. Build a wall whenever you see someone calling a celebrity a slut, a cunt, a whore. Whenever you see a Rando going on about the evils of Islam or how #BlackLivesMatter is a bunch of thugs, block that person. Send him away. Quarantine him until he learns how to behave.
Free speech is something people deserve from the government, but not necessarily from me or you. I don't like that I've had to build a wall online, but I'm not going to weep for the people who made me build it and their ability to harass me and my family. The next time you discover someone has blocked you, it really would be worth it to ask yourself why. Why are you, or the group you run with, so toxic that others are willing to banish the whole group? Because that may be, just maybe, a sign you're on the wrong side.
Jef's collection of stories about vampires and drive-thru churches, The Rook Circle, is available now. You can also find him (but not harass him) on Facebook and Twitter.
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