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Here’s why Twitter’s experimental downvote feature is problematic

Twitter may be encouraged by its initial findings, but there are many thing that can go wrong with such a feature.

Twitter is expanding its experimental downvote feature to web, iOS, and Android users globally, the company said on February 4. The option to downvote replies was first introduced in July last year to a small group of iOS users, but unlike in Reddit, the downvotes aren’t public and are instead used by Twitter to surface the most relevant replies.

Critics, however, argue that the downvote feature will not help Twitter in its goal of tackling misinformation, hate speech, and spam on the platform, and could rather add to the company’s troubles by giving miscreants another avenue for manipulating content. These concerns are markedly relevant when looking at them from the lens of the TekFog investigation, which showed how social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook can be gamed to alter public perception.

What could go wrong?

In January, an investigation by The Wire uncovered an alarmingly sophisticated app called TekFog that can be used to manipulate Twitter and Facebook trends, hijack inactive WhatsApp accounts and spread propaganda, and target automated hate content towards specific groups of people with auto-replies. The investigation alleged that the app has strong ties to the ruling BJP party and was used to promote the party’s agenda through coordinated misinformation campaigns and targeted hate speech.

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The downvote feature could be seen as another weapon in the arsenal of apps and operations like TekFog because if Twitter uses the downvote count in its algorithm to rank replies it can be gamed by malicious actors to downvote dissenting opinions or marginalised groups. Back in July 2021, Twitter said that it will not use downvotes in ranking replies, but now the platform is saying it will use downvoting to prioritise content, which suggests that the metric will somehow be taken into account when ordering replies.

“It has the potential to increase negativity and abuse because through this downvote function we could see these anonymous networked campaigns to thwart marginalized voices,” Brooke Erin Duffy, an associate professor of communications at Cornell University, told NBC News

The feature could also exacerbate the problem of echo chambers as the platform could only show you what you want to see from people that agree with you.

Why Twitter is expanding this feature

The company shared the following reason on why it has decided the expand the downvote feature test globally:

  1. Allows Twitter to learn more about what content to surface: The experiment allows Twitter to learn a lot about the types of replies that people don’t find relevant and the content people instead want to see
  2. Useful for flagging offensive or irrelevant content: A majority of test users told the platform that they use the downvote feature either because they perceived the reply as offensive or irrelevant or both.
  3. Improves quality of conversations: People who tested downvoting agreed that it improves the quality of conversations on Twitter.
  4. Most used method to flag content: Twitter also learned that downvoting was the most frequently used way for people to flag content they don’t want to see, compared to other methods like reporting as spam or muting the conversation.

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