August 1, 2013

BBC's Newsnight Botches Block Bot Coverage

Atheism+, declared dead more times than I can count, came lurching back into the public eye in a big way on July 30 thanks to an episode of Newsnight which aired on BBC Two. James Billingham (@ool0n, @The_Block_Bot), creator of the Atheism+ Block Bot, was interviewed on this program.

The Atheism+ Block Bot was designed to block atheists on Twitter who James and his friends consider to be "general bigots, assholes and fools." It includes some genuinely abusive trolls (Level 1). However, it also includes many people who are guilty of nothing more than expressing disagreement with Freethought Blogs/Skepchick/Atheism+ (Level 3). I am on the list, and I am reasonably confident that anyone who wants to review my Twitter timeline (@vjack) will see that I have not been abusive of others.

The problem with what aired on Newsnight is that the list was described only as a list of "abusers." No mention was made of the various levels and their meaning. All of us who appear on the list are lumped together as "abusers." Here's how Damion (Background Probability) described the problem:
So far as I can tell, the BBC program excerpted above makes no effort to separate the mildest “offenders” (genuinely decent, readily identifiable individuals whom I admire, people like Blackford, Drescher, Maltseva, Mayhew, Stangroom, Wainwright, Wachs, and Zara) on the blocklist from the sort of people who anonymously spew venomous invective and issue violent threats. Instead, Newsnight lumps them altogether under the single heading of “shared list of abusers” and barely even alludes to the fact that the blocking system is multi-tiered. I wouldn’t personally go so far as to call it defamation, wantonly grouping these good people in with those who threaten rape and men who are “raised to hate women,” but then again I’m an American and have an unusually narrow view of what that word should be taken to mean.
Should you discover that you are on the list or decide that Newsnight's coverage was problematic for other reasons, you can file a complaint with the BBC here. I have included mine below.

BBC Newsnight