This column first appeared in the January 12, 2020 PRINT edition of The Vindicator and Tribune-Chronicle newspapers:
Twitter’s Director of Product Suzanne Xie introduced new options for limiting replies to our tweets at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week.
If you’re not a Twitter user, here’s what this means. When we post a tweet, we’ll have the option of deciding who (if anyone) can reply.
The “Conversation Participants” feature will provide us choices for the kind of replies we’d like our tweets to receive.
In the current format, everyone can reply. Authors already have the option to hide certain replies (i.e., harassment, threats, etc.) that viewers can opt to reveal and, if needed, report.
With the Conversation Participants tool, authors will have four options for replies, including:
This all seems fairly straightforward and good for users until politics are introduced to the mix.
Keep in mind that Twitter is testing this change now, in the heat of a presidential election.
It’s difficult to know how some of our political leaders and candidates will react when they have access to these new settings.
Consider President Trump’s use of Twitter.
Trump is arguably one of the most prolific leaders in Twitter’s young life. One could also argue that Twitter continues to sees regular daily active traffic because of Trump’s tweets.
As a political agnostic (at least in public forums like this column), I get to examine both the good and bad in Trump’s tweets without fear of praising or bashing him.
The “good” is that our First Amendment appears to be intact, evidenced by the space Twitter and other platforms provide for free expression. This space is for everyone, from our friends and family to celebrities, athletes and, of course, political leaders. Regardless of status, there’s an opportunity for us to all interact in this same space.
The bad is that our posts, including those from Trump, could be viewed as more divisive than open to debate.
Many of Trump’s tweets are meant to be divisive. They’re designed to bolster supporters and anger opponents.
Some view Trump’s tweets and argue that he encourages debate.
Others look at his tweets as lacking in the kind of demeanor we expect from leaders. After all, he’s known for blocking users who disagree with him. So if his intent is to stimulate debate, silencing some voices seems counter-intuitive.
And therein lies the problem with Twitter’s Conversation Participants feature. How Trump and other candidates may use (or abuse) it is causing some concern among Twitter users.
The fear is that Trump may set his tweets with the “Group” option and permit only those who agree with him to reply to his posts, or worse, set them as “Statement” to block all replies.
It could also lead another court challenge. Six month ago, a federal appeals court ruled Trump was not permitted to block his critics on Twitter. Trump violated the First Amendment when he blocked individual users who were critical of him.
If he chooses to use the “Group” option, it could be that Trump and other leaders may find themselves, yet again, defending their interpretation of the First Amendment.
Dr. Adam C. Earnheardt is professor and chair of the department of communication at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, USA. He researches and writes about communication and relationships, parenting and sports. He writes a weekly column for The Vindicator newspaper on social media and society.