January 8, 2020

Twitter's Proposed "No Replies" Feature Could Be A Nightmare During Weather Emergencies

Twitter announced on Tuesday that they would test a new feature to give users another tool to deal with the site's rampant and often-unchecked harassment problem. Twitter users will be able to limit who can reply to their tweets, even allowing users to shut off replies to their tweets altogether. This feature could have major unintended consequences when it comes to countering false or misleading information. This is especially true during weather emergencies like tornado outbreaks or hurricanes, where every second counts and even a short-lived viral weather hoax can do significant damage to the safety and trust of those in harm's way.

Last year, Twitter rolled out a feature that let users hide individual replies to their tweets, which is great if you get one hateful bonehead yelling at you or saying something completely off-the-wall. In practice, though, it's often used to hide dissenting opinions or replies that attempt to debunk hoaxes and conspiracy theories. Today's proposal goes a step further by allowing users to completely prohibit replies to tweets altogether.

As someone who's been on the receiving end of more hate mail and death threats than anyone should ever see, it's a positive step that Twitter is at least attempting to create tools that help people shake off nasty or harmful replies, even if it's far from enough to address the overall problem. But this new feature fundamentally alters how people interact with each other on Twitter. Limiting or prohibiting replies to certain tweets could have serious unintended consequences when it comes to the spread of fake weather news.

Imagine the scenario I posted on Twitter this morning. We're in the middle of an intense springtime tornado outbreak and a line of supercell thunderstorms is marching across the southern Plains. Amid the flurry of reports comes an ominous tweet: "TAKE SHELTER—MASSIVE TORNADO HEADING TOWARD DOWNTOWN DALLAS!" Attached to the tweet is a picture of the EF-5 tornado that devastated Moore, Oklahoma, on May 3, 1999.

Seasoned meteorologists spot it immediately and try to wave people off of the malicious hoax as it rapidly goes viral in the growing panic, but the person who published the hoax shut off all replies. Meteorologists can't directly reach people seeing the tweet as it crosses their feeds. The only thing most people see is the warning, the old picture, and the fact that it's going viral. Meteorologists have to put the warning on their own feeds and hope that, in the fog of harried warnings about real storms, enough people see the corrections to make a difference.

It's not unrealistic. People pass off old pictures or false information all the time in the midst of severe weather events—tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, blizzards, fires, you name it. Some folks do it for the thrill of going viral, while others just get a sick pleasure out of tricking others in a time of crisis.

That very situation has played out before during tornado outbreaks, but other Twitter users were able to blunt the impact by quickly and forcefully pointing out the hoax. Right now, you have a chance to reach people who are seeing the false information by replying to a tweet. "Hey, this is false. This is an old tornado picture." People do click tweets and look through the replies.

This feature will remove the ability to directly reach those who are taken in by the false information. If there are no replies, that false weather report just hangs out there for thousands of people to see with no indication that it's not true. Under the new system, anyone who tries to refute the incorrect information has to implore their followers to help them spread word that it's bunk. It's a mess, and the corrections don't reach the people who are seeing the viral hoax.

Misinformation and outright hoaxes have plagued the weather community since social media came into widespread use. It's easy for anyone to sound authoritative and go viral. However, unlike politics where stories can take days or weeks to play out, severe weather occurs over a matter of minutes. A major tornado can touch down, destroy neighborhoods, and dissipate in just a couple of minutes. The decision to evacuate ahead of a hurricane needs to be made quickly. False information about the weather isn't just a silly internet thing—it can have a serious, real-world effect on people's safety and well-being.

With the ability to turn off replies to tweets, anyone can craft themselves into an authority figure on any subject without consequential pushback. Folks try to do that anyway, of course, but if you post "this blizzard will hit Washington tomorrow," you're going to get 200 people telling you you're wrong, and anyone who looks at your tweet will see all the people who corrected your misinformation. Eliminating replies will remove that pressure to skew toward truth. In practice, the tweet with the most retweets will become the uncritical truth on the subject, because now who will say otherwise?

After I posted that scenario on Twitter, the company's product lead reached out and said that they were taking this risk into consideration. Using the site's other features to respond to or highlight someone else's tweet simply isn't enough. It's important to be able to pipe up and say "no, this is wrong" when someone posts something that could lead people astray. Without some major tweaks or guards against it, this new feature will make it that much harder to get the word out during bad weather.

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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I contribute to The Weather Network as a digital writer, and I've written for Forbes, the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, Popular Science, Mental Floss, and Gawker's The Vane. My latest book, The Skies Above, is now available. My first book, The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, arrived in October 2015.