A programme that lists thousands of users on Twitter for automatic blocking has been thrown into chaos following an expose by an independent legal blogger. Known as “The Block Bot”, it claimed to list “trolls, abusers, and bigots” on its “Level One” block list. In reality, many of the people targeted by the Block Bot were political critics and sceptics who disagreed with its creators’ hardline progressive beliefs.
The Block Bot was created in the context of the “Atheism Plus” controversy, a schism within atheism and scepticism movements dividing those who wanted to inject feminism, “anti-oppression,” and social justice into the movement, and those who wanted to be as sceptical of political ideologies as they were of religion.
Many of the people listed on the blocklist as “bigots and abusers” are in fact atheist commentators who disagreed with the mission of Atheism Plus, such as popular YouTube commentators Phil Mason, Mykeru and the blogger Skepdigger.
Following a letter of claim issued by the pseudonymous legal blogger Matthew Hopkins, the Block Bot’s website has undergone several rapid changes. Many of these are documented on Hopkins’ private blog. As of this morning, the Block Bot’s website appears to be inaccessible, as well as a linked site that allows users to check whether they are blocked. News also emerged of the resignation of one of the Block Bot’s team members, although it is unclear if this is connected to its legal troubles.
Twitter accounts added to the Block Bot contained a staggering number of journalists, academics and public figures. Equity feminist Christina Hoff Sommers, physicist Brian Cox, and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins were all added to “Level Two” of the list. Its “Level One” list (reserved for the so-called “worst of the worst”) includes a host of parody accounts, bloggers, and journalists – including Breitbart London’s Milo Yiannopoulos.
According to Hopkins, this leaves the Block Bot’s UK-based creators open to legal challenge.
The contents of the ‘Block Bot’ checker are astonishing. For example, per the screenshot at the start of this article, eminent Professor Richard Dawkins is labelled – ‘racist’, ‘gross’, ‘rapeapologist’, ‘childabuseapologism’, ‘transphobia’, ‘youradick’ . This is of course all untrue. Much as I disagree with Dawkins he is guilty of none of those things and the allegations appear to be wildly libellous.
Following advice from an international law partner, Hopkins also suggests that the Block Bot violates UK data protection laws.
anyone, whether in the UK or abroad, who feels aggrieved by the Block Bot is entitled to ask the UK authorities to look into it. The responsible authority in the UK is the Information Commissioner’s Office. It does not matter that the server is located in the United States – that just means the UK based Block Bot team have exported data, which is prohibited under Data Principle 8.
Mark Kern, lead developer of the smash-hit MMORPG World of Warcraft and current head of the consumer group League for Gamers is encouraging British gamers targeted by the Block Bot to make legal enquiries. Many have taken up the challenge.
So @league4gamers has set up an e-mail address for UK citizens on the blocklist. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to register.
— Mark Kern (@Grummz) March 17, 2015
I’ve had call backs from two legal firms regarding the block bot issues. Both concur with ‘Hopkins’ that this definitely is libellous.
— Grimster Von Groom (@GRIMACHU) March 17, 2015
Both, however, also suggest taking the data protection route as a cheaper, faster option or small claims court as a middle option. (UK). — Grimster Von Groom (@GRIMACHU) March 17, 2015
Of course, if there was a libel suit every time someone was mischaracterized as a racist by the social-justice left, the courts would be flooded. The interesting thing about this particular case, however, is how the alleged “abusers, trolls and bigots” were placed on a McCarthy-style list, which was then widely publicized by left-wing media outlets.
This included BBC’s flagship Newsnight programme, which featured a softball interview with Block Bot creator James Billingham in 2013. The feature showed then-BBC presenter Paul Mason exclusively interviewing members of the Atheism Plus movement, with no attempt to reach out to their critics. Later in the feature, he is shown signing up to “Level One” of the Block Bot, describing them as “the worst of the worst” and “super slimy”. He later had to respond to a large number of complaints.
The atheist movement, which was by then sick to the back teeth of the ideological intolerance of Atheism Plus, reacted negatively to the BBC’s coverage. Many of the leading blogs, including Doubtful News, Sceptic Ink, and Atheist Revolution condemned the coverage. As far as I am aware, none of the critics of Atheism Plus were subsequently invited onto the BBC.
It wasn’t just the BBC, either. A day after the Block Bot ran into trouble, the Daily Beast published a feature praising the Block Bot as the “savior of the internet”. Just a coincidence, I’m sure. But it won’t stem the mounting tide of allegations against the Block Bot and its founders.
Lulled into a false sense of security by the adulation of metropolitan progressives who quickly lost interest in them, the creators of the Block Bot truly believed they were not doing anything wrong. They completely failed to see the problem in creating a list of “abusers and bigots” before adding all their political opponents to it and spreading it across the internet. For a group that consider themselves part of a sceptic elite-within-an-elite, the oversight is almost laughable.
Nevertheless, those who have been victim to the new progressive McCarthyism are not laughing. With the Block Bot’s creators scrambling to contain the damage, it appears that reality has finally dawned. Has it dawned too late?