Yesterday, Twitter announced that it was testing a new feature that allows users to limit who can and can’t reply to their tweets. While this will make it more difficult for people to harass others on the platform, this feature could prevent constituents from replying to publicly elected officials. A Twitter representative confirmed to Gizmodo that while major politicians and political candidates won’t have access to the new feature during the testing phase, they will get to use it if Twitter decides to roll it out to all users.
“Major politicians and political candidates will not have access to this feature during the testing period in order to prevent unequal treatment,” a Twitter spokesperson told Gizmodo via email. “The feature would be available to everyone on Twitter if it does fully launch.”
But it doesn’t seem like there are any measures in place at this time that would prevent politicians and political candidates from using the feature to run their mouths without consequences (or snarky replies). Given how powerful of a tool Twitter has become for politicians to influence—or completely wreck—international diplomacy, it can easily be used for more harm than good.
Twitter noted that its intention is to give people “more opportunities to weigh in while still giving people control over the conversations they start.” But with the controls as they are now in testing—everyone can reply, only people you follow can reply, and only the people you mention in your tweet can reply—it seems like the feature will give people fewer opportunities to express their thoughts, especially if those thoughts happen to disagree with, say, the president of the United States.
Here’s an example of the new reply feature in action:
Because the @TwitterComms account didn’t mention anyone in its tweet, no one could reply to it. It’s sort of like turning off the comments section on an online article. However, people were still able to retweet it with their own comments.
As you can see, the new feature wouldn’t totally prevent harassment or prevent people from expressing their opinions. People can still retweet your tweet and add a nasty comment of their own (or debunk wild conspiracy claims, whichever!). You’ll receive a notification if someone retweets and adds a comment about your original tweet, if you choose that setting. With that in mind, this new feature could also make it harder to stop the spread of misinformation, something that Twitter has recently put more of a focus due to the global pandemic.
Here, @TwitterComms was able to reply directly and efficiently to the original post to debunk his claim that Twitter lets you transfer your verification badge to another user. But if the same guy who posted that false information was able to keep people from directly replying, it would be harder for Twitter to address everyone in the thread at once. (You can see the number of people who already retweeted the false information here.) If replies had been limited, the @TwitterComms account could’ve just retweeted with comment on its own feed, but it’s unclear if that would be just as effective, better, or worse than the current system.
But the larger concern is giving political figures and politicians a powerful social media tool to potentially misuse for their personal gain.
“Public officials would be violating the First Amendment if they were to use this tool to block speakers on any accounts they’ve opened up for public conversation in their roles as government actors,” Vera Eidelman, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, previously told Gizmodo.
If Twitter does roll out this feature and follows through with giving politicians access to it, it will likely create the same problems that Eidelman describes. In the past, Twitter has come under fire for consistently not removing content from President Trump’s Twitter account that violates its own rules, one of which was a video altered to make to look like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ripped up Trump’s printed speech during specific moments of his State of the Union address. The tweet, which was first published on February 6, 2020 is still live.
Dell Cameron contributed to this article.