Last week in @Sweden

The block list controversy.

Many Twitter profiles in Sweden, high and low, reacted to the fact that a block list was applied on the @sweden Twitter account last week. As a result of this backlash, the blocks that were put in place over the course of last week have now been lifted. Here’s what went down.

Be like a duck. Calm on the surface, but always paddling like the dickens underneath — Michael Caine

Quick background: The Swedish Institute (SI) is a public agency (government body) devoted to promoting Sweden around the world. The @sweden Twitter account is managed by SI as a marketing channel. Private individuals unaffiliated with SI, known as curators, are given control of the account one week at a time. The purpose is to showcase a diversity of Swedish individuals to the world and both create curiosity and raise awareness about our country.

For some time now the @sweden account policy is to allow its curators to block at their own discretion, and this has not been under scrutiny before. The blocks added in one week have continued to stay implemented until perhaps another curator would feel an urge to unblock. Last week, however, many thousands of accounts were blocked over the course of days, or even hours.

Of the approximately 14,000 accounts blocked on @sweden last week — it is unclear how many of these were added last week — it is said that 2,000 are pure spam accounts, and 12,000 are accounts that have been used for hateful speech. Of these it is estimated that 10,000 are accounts with affiliations outside Sweden, and 2,000 are Swedish or Swedish-related. Note that an account is not the same as an individual and there is strong reason to assume, in contexts like these, that many accounts are controlled by few individuals.

The four major issues being discussed — if we discount the trolls — were:

  1. Innocents. It appears innocents, so called false positives, have been implicated; there are individuals expressing genuine surprise over being blocked. Whether or not these accounts have in the past been used for hateful comments they are still brought under suspicion given the way that the blocks are communicated.
  2. Methodology. The @sweden account started blocking people who have never even interacted with the account. In a blog post by Swedish Institute this is described as a preventive measure to protect the curators of the account. Critics say this is an unethical way of punishing without culpability and makes the rules of engagement very unclear.
  3. Legality. Is a government agency even lawfully allowed to perform this action? Can they block online accounts from interacting with a government-controlled communication channel? Discussion points include counteracting free speech, unlawful registration of citizen opinions and undemocratic decision-making.
  4. Longevity. Actions like this are not performed on a whim. The @sweden account is described as having huge problems with trolls and hateful speech. If the account is to continue to serve its purpose as a public relations tool for Sweden then the issue of how to make the account manageable needs to be addressed.

Although they are seemingly minor in number the innocents are displayed as examples of a government agency spiralling out of control. I often overindulge in events like this where there are outcries of free speech being under attack, with hundreds of people using their free speech to say just this.

The logical fallacy of the outcry

There is one major flaw in the upset. There is nobody who can say for certain that the so-called innocents were blocked during last week and are part of the controversial “block list”, a fact which potentially could make the list less controversial. You may have read above that curators have been allowed to “block at their own discretion”. This means that they have been allowed to block anyone for any reason they themselves see fit. As this has been going on for a while many individuals may have been blocked a fair while back but did perhaps not notice until the recent public outcry.

Pause a bit and take to heart that this personal blocking has been going on for quite a while without any outside criticism and with seemingly successful results. I can truly see where SI would think that a similar strategy, just on a larger scale (with a serious boost in numbers) could help them get to grips with the real problems they are trying to address. What they instead learned was, as we know now, something else.

Aside: Now that the blocks from last week in fact have been removed my thinking was that we actually should be able to get reports from people who still are blocked; this would indicate that they were not part of the blocks put in place last week. At time of writing I am seeing people on Twitter still asking to be removed, dismayed the unblock did not work for them. It is very hard for an onlooker to ascertain if this is in fact because unblocks did not work or because they were blocked long before. Either way SI seem to be actively unblocking even these people; it is unlikely we will ever really know who was truly blocked when.

Some quick facts about blocking

  • Blocking someone on Twitter does not prevent them from continuing to be able to express themselves.
  • Blocking someone on Twitter means you don’t have to parttake in the free speech being expressed on that account.
  • Even though someone is blocked they can still, when logged out, read @sweden’s public tweets.
  • What does happen is that it makes it impossible for the blocked account to mention and have a conversation with the @sweden account.

I would not say that free speech is under attack but I do, however, see the potential for lots of hurt feelings. I also have no information on whether the @sweinstitute Twitter account, which is the official account of the public agency, has any blocks applied to it. If not this would suggest that there are no obstacles to get in touch with the responsible publisher.

What The Swedish Institute has done right

Let’s face it, SI have been very open about what they have done. There is a blog post outlining how people were blocked and why — the real trigger for all of the debate. Some people say what SI did is outrageous but it’s not like SI were exposed by the media. They have also explained why they think it is of interest to implement blocks as a preventive measure. It’s not as if they’re actively trying to hide what they are doing.

It would have been nice, though, for the blog post to be offered in English, given that the @sweden account is directed at an English-speaking audience.

From the start SI have also offered a way for people who feel wrongfully blocked to ask to be unblocked by filling in a form on their website. Here they do ask for real name, but there really is nothing preventing someone from giving a fake name and explaining in the comment field why they prefer to be anonymous.

And now that the public outcry took place the responsible people at SI have listened, taken to heart, acted and responded. In less than 24 hours from their first post on the subject. All blocks added last week have now been removed.

I see nothing highly irregular in how SI have communicated on the matter. On the contrary I am to a large extent impressed. There is just this one grudge…

The major weak spot in the communication

Some of the hurt being expressed will of course be valid and there is, in fact, one glaring flaw in the whole affair. In the SI blog post outlining reasons for blocking users these accounts are described as “hateful towards migrants, women and HBTQ-persons”.

In certain cases individuals who find themselves blocked may feel accused of having views they never expressed. A more nuanced version of this blog post would recognize that a number of innocents may be affected.

Just having this recognition would certainly have allowed any innocents to feel less disgraced and would surely have caused fewer emotional reactions.

To be fair there is actually a bullet point saying that a few accounts have been blocked according to the curator’s own judgment. This should most certainly have been further clarified.

What’s lawful, what’s ethical and what’s the goal?

There is of course still the matter of whether it can be said that there is an actual, structured list maintained by The Swedish Institute. And if this list by Swedish law is illegal or is legal and should be made public.

  • My first point would be that any Twitter “list” is a moving target, as it seems users can be blocked and unblocked at will by any curators. Also, as the blocked accounts have been blocked by many different curators it would surprise me if there is a single, compiled list.
  • My second point would be that there are safeguards in place in Swedish law to prevent the public from requesting compilations of information that even public organizations themselves are not allowed to compile with respect to the integrity of individuals.

This said, from a strictly ethical point of view I would expect a transparent explanation of the guidelines that would lead to exclusion from a public forum, something to fall back on when a decision is questioned. Without it the agency can act unchecked by the public, and this is precisely what the more level-headed criticism of the events have focused on. Without the transparency trust is diminished.

And this is what SI have now realized as well. I must admit a small part of me is a bit disappointed.

Personally I am still keen to learn if The Swedish Institute has broken any laws as I am well aware that many organisations block accounts regularly. In that sense I almost hoped for legal repercussions to bring us more insights about what is accepted and what is not. Not that I wish SI harm; on the contrary. I for example know people in the health industry who systematically report themselves to various authorities to get answers. Because if you ask for advice the safe response tends to be “don’t do it”. With that kind of advice we can’t move forward.

For innovation to happen, and for the required results to happen, organisations often need to break the mould.

The real problem, though

Let’s not forget the real problem here.

In the current state of affairs “becoming a curator has gone from being an honor to a punishment”, as Michaela Leo eloquently described it. Finding a way to protect curators must be a priority. Especially if the alternative is that the externally applied stress of being a curator becomes a deterrent and the whole concept fades away to the laughter of trolls and hate-mongers.

I do feel more and more confident The Swedish Institute can figure it out with a little help from their friends. This chain of events have provided many insights and everyone needs to focus on what has been learned.

I leave you with these words from the post where SI gave word of lifting last week’s blocks:

“SI has previously given curators the freedom to block users, but last week it took place on a larger scale and also in a preventive manner. SI’s assessment was that the blocks contributed to elevating protection on the account and the atmosphere for discussion improved considerably during the week. However, SI also acknowledges a need for investigating these blocks in relation to freedom of speech and governmental practice.” [my translation, my highlight]

Lesson learned: If people are hurt, listen. Communication is a science; when we fail we revise. SI did just this. For this I applaud them. Now onwards we paddle with the goal in mind.

Per Axbom is a designer and coach working out of Stockholm, Sweden. He can help you get unstuck and reach your goals faster. Sometimes he just asks the right questions.

Further reading on Twitter block lists: Sharing block lists to help make Twitter safer.

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