Is the Removal of the Block Feature Threatening Marginalized Groups?

Ever since Elon Musk took over as the new owner of Twitter, now rebranded as X, his decision to remove the block feature has raised concerns about the increased threat faced by certain marginalized groups.

The consequences of this change have been particularly alarming for gay men and Black women, as the number of slurs targeting them has surged significantly. Recent research reveals that slurs against Black American women skyrocketed from an average of 1,282 per day to nearly 4,000 after Musk eliminated the blocking feature. Similarly, slurs against gay men surged from 2,500 per day to almost 4,000 per day.

Removal of Misinformation Reporting Feature

In addition to removing the block feature, Musk also eliminated the option for users to report misinformation. While these decisions have sparked worries, especially within the European Union due to the regulations outlined by the Digital Service Act, it seems that Musk is prioritizing his belief in freedom of speech over the potential risks involved.

According to Anna Collard, the Senior Vice President of Content Strategy and Evangelist at KnowBe4 Africa, these changes effectively strip away the defense mechanisms that users rely on to protect themselves from online threats and abuse. Without a block feature or a way to report misinformation, the digital realm exposes individuals, leaving them vulnerable.

Limited Privacy and Protection

“The mute function that replaced the blocking function only stops notifications about an account’s posts,” she explains. “However, it does not prevent the harasser from viewing, commenting, or replying to a person’s posts. Essentially, muting only shields users from seeing certain content without putting a complete stop to it. If you are getting death threats, all the mute function does is prevent you from knowing you got a death threat.”

Stripping Away of Blocking Feature

Another concern arises regarding the status of accounts that were previously blocked. It remains unclear whether they will automatically become unblocked.

Blocking offered far better protection as it cut communication between the person under attack and the person attacking them. Once they are blocked, the latter cannot comment, follow, post, or repost anything. However, the feature strips this defense mechanism away, leaving every online action of the targeted individual visible to attackers and harassers.

“The concern arises primarily for female users in the public domain, including politicians, journalists, and celebrities,” says Collard. “These individuals are increasingly vulnerable to harassment. Furthermore, women of colour face an even greater risk of online harassment, amplifying the overall threat to their online presence.”

Onslaught of Abusive Interactions Rise

Instances of hate speech, racism, misogyny, and homophobic content have shot up at an “alarming” rate, say researchers. Violence against women, both offline and online, manifests in various ways, including cyber-harassment, revenge porn, rape threats, and even as far as sexual assault and murder threats. Perpetrators can be a range of individuals, including partners, ex-partners, colleagues, and schoolmates.

“Certain groups of women, including women’s rights defenders, journalists, bloggers, gamers, public figures, and politicians, are particularly exposed. A lack of protection may impede their ability to express themselves equally, freely, and without fear,” says Collard. “The impact of cyberviolence on women is disproportionate, leading to psychological distress and suffering, ultimately discouraging their active participation in digital platforms for political, social, and cultural engagement.”

Will Musk Take on Tech Giants?

Platforms such as Apple and Google have incorporated terms and conditions requiring social networking apps to have a block feature for abusive users available in their stores. Whether or not Musk will go head-to-head with tech giants is uncertain as there has been little discussion on the next steps since the shocking announcement in August 2023.

Users must accept these inherent risks and exercise caution when using the platform. X has not yet revealed the evolution of the mute/block feature, but one thing is clear: users must exercise care, remain aware, and be prepared for potential instances of abuse when engaging with the platform.