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Twitter's New Limited Reply Feature Addresses Harassment, But Amplifies Echo-Chambers

Twitter's New Limited Reply Feature Addresses Harassment, But Amplifies Echo-Chambers

It’s often joked that modern culture is overly enthralled with censorship, safe spaces and an inability to simply disagree. It’s become an internet trope to see baby boomers railing on about those pesky lefty college campuses and liberal elites policing speech, but in the realm of social media monopolies and their ill-considered policies, these issues have been decidedly less funny. Case in point: according to a new statement from Twitter’s director of product management, Suzanne Xie, soon you too will be able to craft your very own personalized echo chambers! What could possibly go wrong?!

During her speaking engagement for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Xie unveiled new settings tools coming later this year which allow users to curate their own“conversation participants”. Currently, the platform is testing the feature with four options, known as “Global, Group, Panel, and Statement.” Global lets anybody reply, Group restricts replies to those you follow and mention, Panel further restricts replies to only those mentioned and statement allows you to post with zero replies, similar to disabling comments on publicly posted YouTube videos.

“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,” Xie explained, reminding the audience their examples below were only concept art interpretations as they continue into the research phase. When reporters asked whether the features (or lack thereof) would only help misinformation campaigns and echo chambers, Xie could only reply that it’s all “something we’re going to be watching really closely” in their tests during the first quarter. As it stands, there is no official release date — and there’s a fair argument to be made for why it should stay that way.

Twitter Removes Reply Feature

There’s no understating how impactful these reforms will be on Twitter’s entire information ecosystem. If you get your news from more established tech journalists, such as The Verge’s Casey Newton, you may have seen the changes argued as simple “narrowcasting”, similar to Facebook’s own Groups features, where users can organize in relative secrecy without outside intervention. Twitter, however, goes for a middle ground approach of public displays with only private conversations, which Newton fairly notes could solve certain abuse and harassment problems, regardless of an individual’s account size.

Nevertheless, there’s still a reason why misinformation campaigns, such as the anti-vaccination movement and the flat earth society, thrive in the enclosed safety of Facebook compared to relatively more open alternatives like Twitter and YouTube. It’s a problem often described by Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, that pits the site’s own economic prosperity against a truly free internet. “We incentivize echo chambers”, Dorsey explained to podcaster Joe Rogan early last year, “and it goes against the context of free speech. We incentivize outrage and hot takes — there’s no nuance for conversation. The biggest [regret] has been around the dynamics of the service to allow it to be weaponized to silence someone else… We need to make sure that everyone feels they have a voice.” 

In a moment of radical honesty, Dorsey acknowledges his platform makes bank off an online system where vast freedom allows users to enclose themselves in self-restricted echo chambers. “The most important thing that we can do is we look at the incentives that we’re building into our product,” Dorsey also told The Washington Post, admitting the conflict of interests at hand when “filter bubbles” reinforce profitable viewpoints or biases. “They do express a point of view of what we want people to do — and I don’t think they are correct anymore.” This is an entirely fair assessment, which makes Twitter’s new features all the more confusing and hypocritical in contrast.

How can people be given a voice by taking it away? Wouldn’t limiting replies just further escalate discourse down rabbit holes of information isolation? How can people be expected to defend themselves from being ratio’d, dunked on and legitimately slandered if they can’t even post a simple counter-reply? What about the matter of subtweets, where people can simply bitch about a person in the public space behind their back and the subject’s account isn’t mentioned directly? Is that not a case of offenders throwing shit and crying foul when someone actually throws it back? A platform that allows freedom from scrutiny is not a platform for freedom at all. 

After all, this behaviour isn’t limited to immature children with high school level catty behavior, but extends to the President of the United States who uses his social media account as a personal means of public address — which includes shaming individuals by name. Such a system would allow these politicians to only display their narrative and — if they’re feeling adventurous — replies from their pre-selected supporters. There would no doubt be a chilling effect if Twitter ultimately chooses to repel critics who toe the line, disarm targets defending against harassment campaigns and—if I can steal a quote from TechCrunch’s Josh Constine — “put the burden of safety on victims rather than villains.” 

Now sure, it can be scary to be ratio’d, dunked on and insulted. There are various resources explaining how Twitter’s climate both fuels and quells feelings of anxiety, depression, overall human well-being, and can result in real-world abuse, especially for female journalists and politicians, according to a 2018 study by Amnesty International. While such filters can benefit some, they’re personal matters for individuals to handle — either through their doctors, cops, lawyers or accounts set on private — not a systemic issue so companies and governments can justify stopping citizens and the press from engaging in online discourse.

Xie suggested quote tweeting will remain a functional alternative, but this merely limits almost all counter-speech to the confines of echo chambers, a problem already acknowledged by Dorsey. It’s foolish to think direct replies can be aptly substituted by users preaching to their respective choirs. Since Twitter has over 126 million daily users, including world leaders, reforms of this drastic scale will be felt all over the world. While many agree that reforms to the platform are necessary (especially in the area of online harassment), the tradeoffs seem to run explicitly counter to Twitter’s other stated goals — namely Dorsey’s desire to address echo chambers and growing concerns about spreading disinformation.