Recently, some pro-lifers got a shock on Twitter after discovering one of Ireland’s pro-Immigrant campaigns, the Immigrant Council of Ireland, had blocked them on Twitter — and some of those users had never even followed or had any interaction with the group. For what reason were they blocked? And how could the organization have even known their usernames? The answer, it seems, likely lies with a blocking app called Repeal Shield.
In Ireland in 2018, there was contentious debate regarding the repeal of Eighth Amendment, which had constitutionally protected the right to life. But citizens voted to repeal the amendment, legalizing abortion in Ireland. During the heated online debate before the repeal, an unrelated group of six people in favor of repeal built an app called Block Together, which is, according to its website, “designed to reduce the burden of blocking when many accounts are attacking you, or when a few accounts are attacking many people in your community.”
Repeal Shield was built by pro-abortion activists in Ireland, extending further as a concept than BlockTogether. It banally describes itself as “improving the experience of Twitter for pro-choice users,” and various pieces in Wired and The Guardian have likewise described it as a guard against “myths,” “fake news,” “bots,” or otherwise abusive accounts. Repeal Shield describes itself in this way:
Repeal Shield is a service run by volunteers to improve the experience of Twitter for pro-choice users. Repeal Shield’s own bio on the platform describes them as “blocking blatant, harmful anti-choice misinformation so you don’t have to.” Simply put, Repeal Shield is a list of over 8000 Twitter users who troll pro-choice Twitter users along with bots and fake accounts. […]. When you activate Repeal Shield on Block Together, they will link up your Twitter accounts and block these users from appearing in your feeds and from being able to engage with you.
It all sounds harmless enough, but is it?
Because the tool relies on an aggregate database of usernames, the end result has been that most pro-lifers, many of whom have never had any interaction with accounts using the software, are being added to a database and summarily blocked by those accounts using Repeal Shield. Pro-lifers — specifically anyone, Irish or non-Irish, who supported keeping the Eighth Amendment — have been shut out of conversations that might not even have anything to do with abortion. The Immigrant Council of Ireland is one such organization who uses the tool, as confirmed by a Twitter user.
@luke_silke I queried the Immigrant Council via Facebook and they confirmed they use @repeal_shield They claim to be too busy to be use Twitter properly. They have sent 29,828 tweets, 12,163 likes, follow 1,324 and have 11,074 followers. pic.twitter.com/EJtiZZrGc3
— 𝕭𝖗𝖎𝖆𝖓 𝕲𝖗𝖆𝖍𝖆𝖒 (@KillineyBrian) April 15, 2019
The use of such a tool has a chilling effect upon public discourse when one side of a debate literally cannot speak to the other side, and goes a long way in creating stagnant echo chambers online. Actual pro-life, pro-immigration legal workers even tweeted their surprise at being blocked by the Immigrant Council of Ireland. And one user brought up the interesting question of whether government-funded NGOs should be allowed to use the blocking app, since they are accountable to the people who pay their wages.
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