Twitter pilot project will allow Canadians to hide replies to posts — to a point

Twitter is launching a pilot feature in Canada that will allow you to hide some responses to your tweets unless readers click on a feature to reveal them. 

'This is for all users to gain more control over their conversations,' Twitter head of public policy says

FILE PHOTO: People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo in this illustration picture taken September 27, 2013. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration/File Photo - S1AEUIXLWVAA (Photo illustration/Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

Twitter is launching a pilot feature in Canada that will allow users to hide some responses to their tweets — unless readers click on a feature to reveal them.

As part of the pilot project, starting next week, the hidden responses won't appear in the main thread of a post, but you'll still be able to click a button to see hidden replies.

"The hidden replies will always be available — everybody will be able to see them and they will also be able to interact with them, but they won't be a part of the original tweet and the original thread," said Michele Austin, head of government and public policy for Twitter Canada.

Austin said the company is launching the pilot project in a bid to give users more control over the debates generated by their posts, and will be separate from the existing ability to block or mute certain accounts.

"This is a new feature that allows authors to control a single conversation. Block and mute takes action on accounts, and usually it hides entire conversations or entire accounts."

While Canadian users will be able hide responses to their tweets, the same feature won't be available in other countries. For example, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer would be able to hide replies to their tweets, but U.S. President Donald Trump won't be able to access the feature.

A U.S. court ruled earlier this week that U.S. President Donald Trump violated the first amendment by blocking users on Twitter. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Earlier this week, a U.S. court ruled Trump had violated the first amendment by blocking Twitter users whose views he didn't like from seeing his tweets.

In November, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson settled a lawsuit out of court by agreeing to unblock three critics who filed suit after he blocked them.

Austin said Canada was chosen for the pilot project because of the quality and diversity of its Twitter exchanges.

"Canada has a deep and diverse conversation on Twitter. It's a little bit different than other countries because Canada has a very multicultural background."

Twitter criticized for lack of policing

Austin said the company will watch how the experiment works in Canada before deciding whether to expand it to other countries.

"We're going to be interested to see how people use it and, of course, the feedback that we get on the quality of the conversation and the individual use cases. It may be sports fans who hide more conversations than anybody else and that's one of the things we're seeking to discover with this experiment."

Twitter, with 16 million accounts in Canada, is commonly chosen by celebrities, government officials and others to make announcements. But the social media giant has come under fire for not doing enough to police its platform and prevent abuse, including actions by trolls and automated bot accounts.

In June, Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould publicly chastised the company.

"We hope that Twitter will start to take some responsibility for the content on their platform," Gould said, irritated that the company had not yet signed a declaration on electoral integrity she had drafted. "We know their platform has been used and manipulated by foreign malicious actors and we're still waiting to hear what their plans are here in Canada."

On Thursday, Gould welcomed Twitter's pilot project.

"I am encouraged that Twitter has selected Canada to test a modification on their platform," she said. "As active users of social media, Canadians are regularly exposed to disinformation and extremist rhetoric online. This step can contribute to a healthier online ecosystem."

Austin said the company is serious about cleaning up the platform.

"We really don't want malicious actors on Twitter. That's something we're taking very aggressive action on. So we're taking a co-ordinated approach to malicious accounts and automated accounts.

"We are, from a machine-learning perspective, actioning them much faster as they appear on the platform. It's top of mind for us as we approach the election. It's something we're monitoring every day and it's a priority internally."

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca


Elizabeth Thompson

Senior reporter

Award-winning reporter Elizabeth Thompson covers Parliament Hill. A veteran of the Montreal Gazette, Sun Media and iPolitics, she currently works with the CBC's Ottawa bureau, specializing in investigative reporting and data journalism. She can be reached at: elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca.