Anaylsis: blocklists like Repeal Shield allow Twitter users to create a more friendly environment, though many believe they simply increase divisions

Twitter is often heralded as a space for open debate and conversations, amid visions of global interaction and engagement. But the social network more often feels like a place of harassment for many, acting as a platform for distasteful material which some users would rather not see.

Blocklists function as a response to this. Anyone can set up and share a blocklist of Twitter accounts they find objectionable and others who appreciate this curation can then subscribe. In many ways, it is similar to blocking users one by one, but blocklists provide a broad, structured context for researchers to explore trends in this area. 

The Repeal Shield blocklist was established in early 2018, four months before the Eighth Amendment referendum. The administrators said they wanted to help people have "genuine discussion" on Twitter, by adding "Pro-Life trolls, fake pro-choice accounts set up by Pro-Lifers, and prominent pro-life activists" to the list. "Once subscribed to the list", they explained, "whenever @repeal_shield blocks an account, you too will also automatically block that account. Leaving you free to ignore the Trolls and focus on positive online engagements." 

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To try to understand the reaction to Repeal Shield, we analysed more than 2,200 tweets and identified patterns in how people spoke – positively and negatively – about the blocklist.

Regarding the principle of a tool like this, there were two clear reasons why people endorsed Repeal Shield. Firstly, it improved their experience – it made Twitter "nicer", "better", more "peaceful". A key group was women who felt targeted by some anti-abortion content, describing how it was affecting their wellbeing; the blocklist seemingly provided some kind of relief. Secondly, many users described how using the blocklist allowed for more constructive participation in the referendum debate by removing the temptation to engage in "meaningless" arguments, avoiding the so-called disruption caused by some accounts on the list. 

For critics, there were two key reasons to object to Repeal Shield. Firstly, they felt it was a threat to democratic and civic participation by interfering with the flows of communication in the run-up to a referendum, with some comparing it to censorship or free-speech rights (even though, crucially, nobody was prevented from speaking). The second argument was that blocklists undermined the Twitter experience for those who enjoy diverse exchanges. Critics have often suggested that it turned Twitter into an "echo chamber" and heightened divisions.

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Some raised concerns about the apparent stigmatisation of those added to the publicly available list, arguing it was a privacy violation to group people together in such a public way allegedly based on social/political beliefs. Some pro-choice users had concerns about Repeal Shield as they didn’t like handing over control of their Twitter feed to others. They disagreed with blocking opponents or they thought it was more strategic to "keep an eye" on them.

Elsewhere, we identified some patterns about how people talked about the group dynamics at play. For critics, the blocklist was the latest thing for "snowflakes" and "liberals" who were running and hiding from "the truth". Yet those who supported the list often highlighted how they were simply asserting control of their Twitter experience: it was their choice not to listen/see/engage with others, sometimes comparing it to changing TV channel or turning off the radio.

Supporters also made many assumptions and generalisations, claiming there were racist and misogynistic patterns among those accounts on the blocklist. There was also an element of what can be called ingroup/ outgroup expressions, thought of as cheering on your team – and riling up your opponents. This was evident in people saying things like they used the blocklist because "it pisses them [the anti-abortion side] off so much". Some users added to the blocklist declared it as a badge of honour, expressing pride that they "must be doing something right" in the campaign.  

There were clear discrepancies in attitudes towards blocklists, but we concluded that both sides were ultimately striving for the same thing

Overall, there were clear discrepancies in attitudes towards blocklists, but we concluded that both sides were ultimately striving for the same thing – a space for constructive engagement – even if they disagree on what that looked like or how it was best achieved. For some whose priority was the individual, personal level, the blocklist served as a much-needed defence against the worst that Twitter offers. For others, who argued at a broader societal level, it was an unwanted interference at a time of heightened political activity.

Discussions around blocking on Twitter often draw on current debates around polarisation and the fragmentation of society into closed-off pockets where people are said to have little tolerance for those who don’t echo their viewpoints. Yet blocking is complex: users often feel targeted or unsafe. The harm can be genuine, even if some dismiss the digital environment as lesser, insisting Twitter is not "real".

It should also be remembered that people have always made active choices about what media they consume and avoid. Nevertheless, blocklist tools are a very structured and deliberate mechanism which could mean serendipitous exchanges may become even more unlikely as people formalise their Twitter boundaries. Blocklists are relatively invisible and it is important that Twitter users and onlookers are aware of their existence, structure, and purpose if they continue to gain prevalence.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ