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Blacklisted!

I’ve been writing this blog since 2006, and for a while it seemed that my readership was growing steadily. I joined Twitter in 2009, and Tumblr in 2013, and later that year I made a separate Twitter account for personal and political tweets. I saw people retweeting and reblogging my work. But at a certain point the number of retweets, reblogs, mentions and comments that my posts got abruptly dropped. Since then most of the responses I get are from regular readers or Facebook friends.

This is not entirely a bad thing. I know that a lot of what I write is controversial, and some transitioners even find it offensive. I’ve had a couple of unpleasant experiences, on Reddit and on Facebook, with people sharing my work with a hostile audience, and it is not necessarily valuable. I don’t really want to reach people who have closed their minds to my ideas, whose only response will be unthinking hate, and who will use the opportunity to find ways to dismiss my arguments.

The main reason I write is simply because I have ideas, thoughts, words in me that want to get out. I read things that other people write, and if I don’t write down my own thoughts in response, I tend to get more confused about the issues and forget my earlier thoughts.

But I also write for others, for trans people who are deciding whether to transition, for trans people who have decided not to transition and can hopefully benefit from my experience, and from various kinds of allies. I want to continue to reach them.

What’s frustrating is that it could be due to people simply not appreciating my writing anymore. I find myself wondering whether I’ve gotten so out of touch with other trans people that nobody agrees with me at all. Or possibly worse, that what I say is complete gibberish to them.

I’ve occasionally read things about a Twitter blacklist, a plugin that will load a centrally maintained list of Bad People and filter their tweets out. Now, I believe in blocking people; there are too many trolls out there. But blocking should always be done on a case by case basis. Group blacklists are a huge abuse of power.

It crossed my mind that I might have been put on some blacklist. This is a good place to point out that I have not done any of the things that are normally invoked to justify keeping a blacklist. I have never harassed or stalked anyone. I have never threatened anyone with discrimination, much less violence. I haven’t called anyone slurs based on race, gender, religion, sexuality or anything else. The worst things I’ve said to anybody are probably “fuck you” and “you’re an asshole” in the midst of heated arguments. If that’s what it takes to be on that blacklist I’d expect half the world to be on there.

I got some confirmation for my suspicions last year, when the LaLa Zannell, a staffer at the Antiviolence Project retweeted the claim that “Stonewall was started by trans women.” The claim bothers me because it is invariably used to foreground transition track trans women, excluding the trans women at Stonewall who chose not to transition. The word “trans women” didn’t exist then; they all called themselves queens or transvestites, regardless of their transition status.

I tried to engage with the people repeating that claim on Twitter, and at first I was engaged, if with suspicious contempt. But then all of a sudden LaLa Zanell retweeted a tweet from an anonymous account, responding to another, private anonymous account, claiming that I had “priors,” so that it was okay to block me.

Again, note that I did not attack or threaten anyone or any group. Zannell and friends were challenging a historical account of Stonewall, and offering an alternative. I was doing exactly the same thing.

That was clear evidence of my name on some blacklist that could be used by people to decide whether to block me. I suspected I was also on an informal blacklist, but I had no evidence until a few months ago I came across a tweet shared by a fellow linguist and trans woman who follows me on Twitter. The author of this post, also a trans woman, talked about using these group blacklists in the past and renouncing the practice:

I saw this tweet from my professional Twitter feed, where I mostly talk about linguistics and try to keep political tweets to a minimum. I logged in to my personal account and discovered that I was indeed blocked by the author of that blog post. I tweeted this information to her from my professional account, and she happily removed the block. Neither of us remembered having any interaction with the other, so it is clear that I am indeed on an automatic blacklist.

What is most disturbing about these blacklists is that there is no due process, no opportunity for redress, and not even any notification to people who are placed on one. Even the people who use these blacklists are never told anything about me. One day I am visible to them, the next I am gone.

Even the informal blacklist that Zannell and friends used was a complete mystery to me. The tweet she retweeted came from an anonymous account that blocked me. The evidence of “priors” it referred to was from another anonymous account whose tweets were private. There was no way for me to see the evidence against me, and no opportunity to respond or refute it.

It is perfectly fine for individuals to block anyone they don’t want to interact with. It is also appropriate for Twitter or even organized groups to block or ban repeat offenders, with due process, transparency and accountability.

It is much worse to have hidden blacklists maintained by anonymous administrators, with no procedures for recourse or accountability. And it is even worse to have such hidden blacklists applied automatically, with the user being unaware of the people they have blocked. It is a recipe for disappearing people that a totalitarian dictator would be proud of.

What I find most disturbing is that LaLa Zanell worked for the Antiviolence Project at the time. Zannell may have been junior staff member at the time, but when I alerted the organization about this activity there was no response. This lack of interest, and the fact that Zannell has been promoted twice since then leads me to wonder whether AVP as an organization would ever adopt a blacklist.

Would there come a time when I could be beaten up, and try to contact AVP to report it, only to be ignored? I hope not. I’d like to get some reassurance from them.

I wrote most of this post a few weeks ago, but I’ve been avoiding finishing it until tonight, because it was painful just re-reading the nasty tweets from Zannell and her anonymous friends, and even more painful being reminded that there are thousands of people out there who won’t even get a chance to read a little of what I write, so they can decided for themselves whether to read more or not.

What moved me to finish the post and click “Publish” was the recent controversy over fake news in the US election. I’ve had a lot of thoughts about the election and about the fake news, but I haven’t posted anything because I haven’t had any answers. Tonight another fellow linguist and data scientist posted a dataset of “fake news” gathered from websites flagged by Daniel Sieradski’s “BS Detector” software, which relies on a list of domains that “was somewhat indiscriminately compiled from various sources around the web.”

At this point I don’t think I need to spell out for you why I think Sieradski’s methods are a bad idea. Yes, I understand why group blacklists are tempting. But they don’t work, and they are open to serious abuse. I’ve spent my life supporting independent media organizations, going back to when I used data science to fight Rush Limbaugh’s misinformation in 1995. I don’t want to see small media providers snuffed out because “this blacklist is better than nothing.” It’s not. I’m serious.

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1 Comment

  1. I like and appreciate your writing, Andrea, and it doesn’t bother me when on occasion I don’t share your opinion. In those cases we likely differ on a more subtle or minor issue than anything else. Likewise, I agree with you on the blacklist “process.” Not only are you presumed guilty but you’re also not provided any reasonable opportunity to defend yourself.
    Keep up your writing here, please.
    Emma

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