When do you block somebody?
It was a question my mother, the relatively uninitiated social media user, asked me one day. To my mother, who was still unaware of the uglier face of the internet, the block feature seemed unfathomable. After all, the whole point of social media was to connect with people, so why have a feature designed exclusively to shut them out? In attempting to answer her question, I found myself mulling over the same. When is it OK to block someone, and what does it truly entail? Is the feature really an indispensable one?
Each platform has its own set of rules and criteria when it comes to blocking or reporting a user, but the essence of it remains the same. Blocking a user would entail them never seeing any of your posts again, or never being able to interact with you on that platform. Reporting a user, on the other hand, takes it a step further, helping you flag potentially harmful or triggering content that may alert the said platform to take steps to remove it. When it comes to reporting, the territory becomes slightly dicier, because the criterion in place comes across far too arbitrary in many cases.
Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have failed on multiple counts to check hate speech, rape threats, white supremacy or other such violence-inciting posts, while they have suspended accounts for speaking up against abuse, or for women claiming their bodies on their own terms. But the irony is, this is exactly when one employs the ‘report’ feature – when they are being both verbally or physically threatened, abused, and targeted – and the fact that the features that are meant to be safeguards might not entirely be effective in being so, lends them a major question mark. Online harassment is not a new phenomenon, and neither is the impulse to “report” it. But when this feature fails, the next best option is to block.
Blocking, hence, almost becomes an act of self-care. It keeps the negativity, the triggering content, the personal threats at bay, while giving you some semblance of calm. Unlike the report feature, to ‘block’ is a one-dimensional act; something that solely removes a certain harmful presence from your timelines. It does not offer any kind of long-term online safety, but it’s a start. To block is to personally curate your feed, to pick and choose who you want in it, and who you do not; because, at the end of the day, you as the user gets to control your online presence and interactions.
However, while the ‘block’ or ‘report’ function almost become a necessity when it comes to online harassment, sometimes they also end up being misused. When trolls begin mass-reporting a page or person, that particular entity comes under unfair attack – as was the case with a journalist earlier this year, who protested the deeply misogynistic lyrics of the viral rap song ‘Bol Na Aunty’, and subsequently faced the ire of sexist meme pages. This set a dangerous precedent, ending up being a blatant misappropriation of Facebook’s very same anti-harassment features to facilitate the harassment of another individual. And sadly enough, this wasn’t the only case.
But even when internet trolls or lax community standards aren’t jeopardizing these features, the ‘block’ and ‘report’ often comes into play even in the tiniest of online arguments. Whether it’s a falling out over political beliefs, or a simple difference of opinion, blocking or muting (on Twitter, especially) is absurdly common. Even if these motivations for blocking aren’t directly harmful, some might argue that they still trivialize the features, reduce it to a tool for settling petty fights rather than combat the real problems of abuse that they were meant to. While there is some weight to such an argument, I am not entirely inclined to denounce this particular brand of blocking (although reporting does go a bit too far in this case). Just because you block a certain user for expressing differing opinion does not mean you aren’t willing to engage with opposing views. The opposing views may be inflammatory, and even if they aren’t, they might affect your mental health in insidious ways.
Here, again, to block becomes an act of self-care. It is the embodiment of controlling your online narrative in a way you can’t with your real-world narrative. Social media should ideally give you a lot more agency to see what you want, to talk to who you want, and to avoid who you want. More often than not, it can provide a reprieve from the patterns of real-life violence one can’t escape. And so, it’s the user’s prerogative to make sure what’s on their feed is wholly and entirely conducive to them, that they can build a safe space of their own sans any kind of negativity or hate. Hence, to answer my mother’s question, the ‘block’ button is merely the facilitator ensuring your healthier, happier online existence.