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 marginalised 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.
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 prioritising his belief in freedom of speech over the potential risks involved.
According to Anna Collard, senior vice president of content strategy and evangelist at KnowBe4 Africa, these changes effectively strip away the defence mechanisms that users rely on to protect themselves from online threats and abuse. With no block feature and no means to report misinformation, individuals are left exposed and vulnerable in the digital realm.
“The mute function that replaced the blocking function only stops notifications about an account’s posts,” she says. “However, it does not prevent the harasser from viewing, commenting on, 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.”
Another concern is the status of previously blocked accounts. 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. The latter cannot comment, follow, post or repost anything once they are blocked. However, the feature strips this defence 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.”
Instances of hate speech, racism, misogyny, and homophobic content have shot up at an “alarming” rate, says 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, schoolmates, and frequently, anonymous individuals.
“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.”
Platforms such as Apple and Google have incorporated terms and conditions requiring social networking apps to have a block feature or the ability to block abusive users in order to be available on 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.
Nevertheless, it is crucial that users of the social platform recognise that these risks are now inherent in its use and that they need to be careful moving forward. The evolution of the mute/block feature within X is yet to be revealed, but one thing is clear: users must exercise care, remain aware, and be prepared for potential instances of abuse when engaging with the platform.