Elon Musk to empower abusers? X might remove 'block' feature

Users of X say this takes away their right to keep abusive posts and people at bay.
Sejal Sharma
X owner Elon Musk announces he'll do away with the 'block feature'.
X owner Elon Musk announces he'll do away with the 'block feature'.

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Ever since Elon Musk took over Twitter last year, the platform — now called X — has been teetering around the edges of eliminating harassment while advocating for free speech. Now, in an announcement by the controversial billionaire which will send free speech activists into a dizzying headache, X may soon get rid of the ‘block’ feature.

Another day, another controversy

Musk says that the feature doesn’t make sense to him anymore. Perhaps he should try saying that to individuals who have experienced bullying and virtual harassment. For many app users, removal of this vital feature could pose a significant safety concern. Here’s hoping that this is another one of Musk’s gimmicks which he backtracks on after much backlash.

X users are already claiming that they would delete the app if the block feature is removed.

Former Twitter CEO and founder Jack Dorsey, who often holds differing viewpoints from Musk, engaged in virtue signaling. He said, “100. Mute only,” implying that X should only have the option of muting other users.

Mute is a feature on X which allows users to remove an account's posts from their timeline without unfollowing or blocking that account. Accounts that have been muted will remain unaware of their muted status and will continue to appear in the user's list of followers. However, these muted accounts will retain the ability to interact with the user through direct messages and by being tagged in posts.

While this feature is highly beneficial for individuals seeking to avoid posts from bothersome accounts, its effectiveness raises concerns when considering users who receive serious threats like death or assault. The user can mute the abuser's account but that doesn't restrict the abuser from posting another derogative or scary post.

One might argue that X has a mechanism to report online abuse, but victims of online hate will still be able to see posts from the abuser's account till X takes action.

X's website says, "...we prohibit behavior and content that harasses, shames, or degrades others. In addition to posing risks to people’s safety, abusive behavior may also lead to physical and emotional hardship for those affected."

In removing the block feature, X will be in violation of its own policy as it would place a lot of users at risk.

The company will also need to address the long-term psychological effect of hateful speech, which is a form of redressal for many users.

But can X really remove the ‘block’ feature?

Musk, who is a liberal user of the block feature, could possibly face repercussions from Apple’s App Store and the Google Play Store. 

The guidelines of the App Store categorically say: “To prevent abuse, apps with user-generated content or social networking services must include…The ability to block abusive users from the service.” 

Whereas, Google policies for the Play Store say: “Apps that contain or feature UGC, including apps which are specialized browsers or clients to direct users to a UGC platform, must implement robust, effective, and ongoing UGC moderation that…Provides an in-app system for blocking UGC and users.”

Google also reserves the right to remove an app and on multiple violations of its policies, the tech giant can also suspend the app permanently.

An alternative to blocking and muting

A day after Musk’s announcement, CEO Linda Yaccarino said that the company is in the process of developing a mechanism better than blocking and muting on the platform. 

When Musk took over, he dramatically reduced the Twitter workforce by 80 percent to address declining ad revenues and offset the substantial cost of acquiring the social media giant. 

The two new goals which Musk announced back then were a more lenient approach to content moderation and a decrease in spam bots on the microblogging website. But a report by The Wall Street Journal said that the level of bot activity on the platform is about the same as before Musk took over.

And as for the former goal, removing the block option will just give more leverage to online bullies and abuse-hurling punks to spew verbal diarrhea with impunity. In fact, X is becoming a haven for online hate.

A paper published in 2023 analyzed online hate on Twitter before and after acquisition by Musk in October 2022. The researchers used Perspective API, a free API which uses machine learning to identify toxic conversations. They found that the daily average overall usage of hate keywords on Twitter nearly doubled after Musk bought Twitter.

An alternative available to users of X is to set their profile as private, ensuring privacy and limiting post visibility to only those who follow the user.

A possible legal pushback

Another legal battle that Musk’s X will face is a possible pushback from the European Union’s newly introduced law - Digital Services Act (DSA), set to come into force on August 25, 2023.

DSA demands that big tech companies like Twitter, Meta and Google police their platforms to protect EU citizens from disinformation and hate speech. Under the new law, companies will have to be more transparent and provide information to regulators and independent researchers on content-moderation efforts, as per a report by the Associated Press.

Earlier this year, a top EU official had told Musk that Twitter needs to make progress in preparing for DSA, adding pressure on the company to ensure it complies, as per AP.

A December 2022 report by Reuters, in which the news organization spoke to its head of trust and safety, said that Musk's Twitter will lean more towards automation to moderate content, and will do away with manual reviews. The company restricts the distribution of troubling content but doesn't remove certain speech outright.

In a nod to automated moderation, Musk had revealed in July that X has a 'dick-pic-bot,' which scours the social media platform in search of phallic-shaped pictures and then flags them.

Removing the block feature will bring Musk one inch closer to his idea of turning X into a 'Digital Town Square,' where there is civic discourse and free speech, but at what cost?

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