Twitter’s Reply-Limiting Feature Will Trap Us in a Fake News Nightmare

Twitter’s new privacy-enhancing feature could imprison us in a fake news nightmare. | Source: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

  • At CES in Las Vegas, Twitter announced a new feature that could radically change the platform’s dynamics.
  • Twitter will be testing the ability to limit who can reply to tweets in the first quarter. It could go global later this year.
  • But one weatherman’s tweet describes a fake news nightmare scenario that will be made possible by the new function.

At CES in Las Vegas, Suzanne Xie, Twitter’s director of product management, announced users would be able to limit who can reply when they compose tweets. Twitter is calling the function “conversation participants.”

It will have four settings:

Global lets anybody reply, Group is for people you follow and mention, Panel is people you specifically mention in the tweet, and Statement simply allows you to post a tweet and receive no replies.

No word on whether Twitter will add a fifth setting that blocks any replies with K-Pop gifs. Now that would be a game-changer for improving the user experience.

Critics have said for years that Twitter fosters toxic conversations. Xie touts the reply limiting feature as a way to make the conversations on Twitter more healthy.

Getting ratio’d, getting dunked on, the dynamics that happen that we think aren’t as healthy are definitely part of … our thinking about this.

A BuzzFeed headline quipped:

Twitter Will Let You Limit Who Can Reply To Your Tweets. It’s Unclear How People Will Use This New Feature To Harass Each Other.

But Dennis Mersereau, a weatherman and Forbes Science contributor, can think of how.

Unchecked Fake News Could Go Viral on Twitter

Source: Twitter

It’s a true nightmare scenario.

In this case, it’s not merely misinformation that spreads. Critical, but false news about a potential disaster could put lives at risk. One could imagine other ways that panic could be incited with no way to stem the flow of disinformation.

This would violate Twitter’s primary concern, which is the safety of its users. Founder and CEO Jack Dorsey has expressed this overriding consideration in Twitter’s policies on Joe Rogan’s podcast.

Making The Hive Mind Less Mind Like

If social media platforms are a hive mind, this feature would be like a drug that blocks signals between neurons. Twitter should allow its users to organically regulate the flow of content.

That’s the strength of social media platforms.

One may object to Mersereau’s nightmare scenario that someone could still report the tweet. That’s true, but there’s an inherent bottleneck problem. A top-down, centralized approach to policing content won’t be as responsive as letting the community keep watch.

Jack Dorsey says user safety is Twitter’s top priority. | Source: AP Photo/Francois Mori

If someone recognizes the photo is of a previous tornado and replies, it could take the wind out of the post before it goes really viral. But if we add another step, a review and response from Twitter headquarters, the response may be too late.

This is an extreme example. But countless lesser versions of this scenario could leave Twitter rife with more fake news. That would degrade the utility of the platform and create the opposite of a less toxic environment. Twitter is handing people a feature to further balkanize Twitter into a fractured array of echo chambers on a silver platter.

Especially worrisome is how public figures will be able to abuse the future to mass-mute dissenting speech on their posts. Does Twitter really want to hand out censorship features to Donald Trump?

This article was edited by Josiah Wilmoth.

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