Are you on Twitter? Here’s some advice on managing harassment.

It’s been an odd couple of weeks for me. As a result, my Twitter-sphere has been busier than usual. While the vast majority of the feedback I’ve received has been polite, a small fraction has not. Strange men seem to believe I’m interested in their unsolicited opinions on my gender, sexuality, mental health, and appearance. Sometimes all at once. To clarify, I am not.

A cartoon of a person in side profile holding a phone. The light from the phone shines on their face.
Photo by visuals on Unsplash

I have no intention of leaving Twitter. It connects me with research scientists and healthcare workers around the world. I’ve received media requests and other opportunities via Twitter. An international graduate student once DMed me asking how to access local mental health support. I learned about the LGBTQ+ STEM Conference via Twitter. It’s a tool that makes me a more effective scientist and science communicator.

There are different ways to respond to social media harassment. Comedian Janey Godley and OB/GYN Dr. Jen Gunter take no prisoners. Food writer Jack Monroe takes legal action when necessary, talks about their trolls, and sometimes deletes tweets. Musician and artist Amanda Palmer simultaneously blocks while practising aggressive, radical empathy. I’m still working out the best method for me. I asked for advice and received practical suggestions, messages of support, and pictures of dogs. I’d like to share some of that in case it helps you too.

A word cloud in the shape of the Twitter logo. Some of the most prominent words include block, report, and mute.
Word cloud illustrating the advice I received on what to do with Twitter harassment.

As a data scientist, it’s my prerogative to visualise any and all data. The above word cloud (created with wordclouds.com), shows the frequency of each word in the replies to my tweet. I’ve removed stop words. The size of the word reflects how frequently it occurred in replies. As you can see the general advice is to mute, block, and report. It’s important to understand the differences between muting and blocking. I’ve described some of the key ones in the below table. Note that the effect of muting depends on whether you follow the user.

A table describing the differences between muting and blocking users on Twitter.
What’s the difference between muting and blocking?

I can divide the advice I received into two schools of thought:

  1. Block often and without hesitation. Don’t worry about offending users who weren’t harassing you. If they’re an empathetic human, they’ll understand that you don’t have the time, energy, or interest to sort the well- from the ill-intentioned.
  2. Mute often and without hesitation. Let them scream into the void. By muting, you avoid giving them the satisfaction of knowing you spent even a fraction of a second thinking about them.

Proponents of both strategies agree that you should trust your instinct to block/mute, act pre-emptively, and report any violent threats. If you encounter a user harassing someone else, block/mute them then and there. If you encounter a violent threat towards you or someone else, screenshot it first. That way, if the authorities become involved, you have a record. You can save these screenshots to a folder on your computer or DM them to yourself.

What struck me about both strategies is that the onus is on victim to avoid Twitter harassment. There are tools available both inside and outside of Twitter to reduce this workload. Besides muting individuals, you can set-up advanced filters for your notifications. If you so choose, these mute notifications from users:

  • You don’t follow;
  • Who don’t follow you;
  • With a new account;
  • Who have a default profile photo;
  • Who haven’t confirmed their email;
  • Who haven’t confirmed their phone number.

There’s also software designed to reduce Twitter harassment. Twitter Block Chain is a browser extension available to Chrome users. It allows you to block everyone a given Twitter user follows and their followers. Block Party is an invitation-only tool that mutes users harassing you. You need never know they exist. Within 15 minutes of setting up Block Party it had removed an unpleasant tweet from my timeline.

One important strand that came through is that you don’t need to feel guilty for muting or blocking a Twitter user. Nor do you need a ‘good reason’. You don’t owe strangers on the internet your time, energy, or emotional labour. It’s not your job to listen or educate them — people get paid to do those things. As Amber Ying puts it “blocking is self-care”.

Nonbinary + queer + #firstgen + depression/anxiety. Bioinformatics postdoc w/ @Decarvalho_lab . Ovarian cancer + epigenetics + machine learning. They/them.