Twitter Introduces Hide Replies Feature

Shana Vogan Shana Vogan, Social Solutions Specialist

Twitter is rolling out a new “hide replies” feature that gives users the ability to make replies invisible. The platform began rolling out this feature in Canada in September and later to selected users in Japan and the U.S. It’s now available for all users.

Why Hide Replies?
Twitter’s original announcement for the new feature said: “…we know that distracting, irrelevant, and offensive replies can derail the discussions that people want to have.” In other words, hiding replies is being offered as a way for users to post tweets without having to worry about getting shouted down by hostile replies. Of course, deciding what’s offensive or irrelevant is entirely up to the user in this case.

Not everyone understands how the hide replies feature works. Despite certain rumors, users don’t have the ability to delete replies. Nor is Twitter itself hiding replies. Hidden replies, in fact, are still available. However, if people want to see them they have to click past “read hidden replies.” If this is the case, why is the feature raising so much controversy?

Twitter introduced the hide replies feature in order to control and discourage trolling and hostility on threads. Long arguments often develop on political threads, for example. As we head into an extremely divisive presidential race in the U.S. the amount of arguing and trolling on Twitter and other social media sites will only increase. Hiding replies is not meant for dealing with tweets that are truly offensive, harassing or threatening. Users already have the ability to report such tweets. This feature is more about giving users the ability to control the narrative on the threads they start.

One rationale behind the new feature may be to prevent contentious threads from getting even more heated. When an argument begins, it can attract more and more participants on both sides of the issue. This can be like a wildfire that’s increasingly hard to put out. The original user can always delete the whole thread. However, hiding replies provides a less drastic way to reduce the tension. While the replies are still there, they aren’t immediately visible to everyone.

Is Twitter Encouraging Censorship?
Critics of the new feature claim that it gives users the ability to censor replies they don’t like. Specifically, users who get “ratioed” can hide this fact by filtering replies. Ratioed is Twitter slang for getting a large number of critical replies on a thread, usually exceeding the number of likes. To many critics, hiding replies is contrary to the whole aim of Twitter as an open platform. It also seems a bit unfair to let favorable replies remain visible while hiding threads that are going against them.

People today often use the word “censorship” very loosely. If users could simply erase replies they didn’t like, this could be considered a type of censorship. We could compare Twitter and other social media sites to discussion forums. On a forum, anyone with moderator status can delete posts for any reason. On Facebook and Twitter, however, one user cannot delete another user’s posts. If they really don’t like the direction of a thread, they can delete their own original tweets. Hiding replies only places a small barrier between users and tweets.

Will Hiding Tweets Distort Threads?
While hiding replies isn’t technically censorship, either on the part of Twitter or the user doing the hiding, there’s one way that the feature has the potential to distort reality. If users could simply choose to leave replies visible or hide them all, it would be straightforward. However, they can choose to hide certain replies that they don’t like. Since Twitter feeds move so quickly, many users don’t spend a great deal of time inspecting every thread. Many people are unlikely to bother to click on “view hidden replies.”

Suppose, for example, someone posts a tweet that gets 100 replies. To keep it simple, assume 50 replies support the original tweet and 50 are critical. The user can hide the 50 critical replies, making it look like everyone agrees with him or her. Of course, anyone can see that there are hidden replies. However, at a casual glance, it can provide a distorted view. One objection is that it allows users to post false information and then hide replies that provide corrections with substantiated facts.

Is the Feature Meaningful?
Another criticism of the hide replies option is that there’s no point in hiding replies when anyone can easily read them with a single click. Of course, if Twitter were to allow users to completely delete tweets, that would be even more controversial for good reason. Allowing users to simply erase unfavorable replies would make it possible to truly distort reactions. The way it works, the feature only changes the appearance of the thread.

Will Hide Replies Achieve the Desired Result?
The intent behind the hide replies feature is clear enough. The idea is to give users protection against trolls. If users are afraid to express unpopular viewpoints out of fear that they’ll be harassed with angry replies, this doesn’t help the cause of free expression. In theory, this feature will make people feel more comfortable about writing tweets that turn out to be unpopular.

By releasing this feature, Twitter is acknowledging that many threads are essentially debates and popularity contests rather than calm conversations among friendly participants. The common use of terms such as “ratioed” is itself proof of the contentious nature of many discussions. Rather than trying to discourage debate, Twitter is seeking a way to tone down the heat on some of the more heated topics.

The hide replies feature is getting quite a bit of publicity and is, somewhat ironically, causing many arguments. In truth, the feature will probably not have a huge impact on the social media platform as it doesn’t restrict anyone’s freedom of expression. At the same time, it could well have the desired effect of toning down some of the angrier exchanges on Twitter.