Will Twitter’s new “don't @ me” feature actually stop online abuse?

Currently in testing stages, the new tool will allow users to control the conversation under their tweets to prevent bullying and trolling.

by Roisin Lanigan
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21 May 2020, 10:32am

For anyone who has ever been trolled, laughed at or simply ratio’d to death over a dumb tweet, Twitter’s new “don’t @ me” tool will be a welcome blessing. The new settings, announced by the social networking site yesterday, will allow users to curate not just who can see their tweets, but also who can reply to them.

Meant to help users “feel safe and comfortable”, the feature, which is currently being tested by a limited number of people globally, provides three options before tweeting: allowing everyone to reply to your thoughts, only people you follow, or only people specifically mentioned in the tweet. For the latter two options, Twitter’s “reply” function will be greyed out for anyone the original user hasn’t given access to.

On the surface the development is a good one, if it actually does as it’s intended, and helps Twitter users feel safer and more secure when using the app. But there are a few caveats, and they’re big ones. Subtweeting, the practice of screenshotting a tweet to deride on your own timeline, or vaguely tweeting about an issue or person without mentioning their name or handle, is rampant on Twitter, and it’s obvious that without an option to get into a heated argument in the replies, this will continue. Additionally, even with the newly announced “don’t @ me” feature, users will still be able to retweet, like and retweet with comment, meaning they can still theoretically endorse or rebuke a controversial statement.

“Being able to participate and understand what’s happening is key for useful public conversation,” Suzanne Xie, Twitter’s director of product management, said in a statement about the new feature. “So, we’re exploring how we can improve these settings to give people more opportunities to weigh in, while still giving people control over the conversations they start.”

There’s also the fear that curtailing replies will discourage holding politicians accountable for their outlandish claims on Twitter (yes we are talking about Trump), and will make it harder to challenge hate speech and misinformation posted by trolls with large followings.

While it’s a step in the right direction to help control its bullying problem, Twitter might arguably have more luck by censoring or banning the accounts that post the kind of hateful content that inevitably ends up getting ratio’d to death, rather than simply adding a tool which adds to the effect of being within your own ideological bubble, unable to be challenged on controversial and often harmful views.

Having said that though, will I be using the tool to avoid criticism of my opinions on who should have won season 12 of RuPaul’s Drag Race? Absolutely, yes.