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Twitter is testing downvotes. Experts are split on how they would affect the platform.

"Thumbs-down is better than [commenting], 'Take a dirt nap,'" one academic said.
Image: FILE PHOTO: A Twitter logo is seen outside the company headquarters in San Francisco
Twitter headquarters in San Francisco on Jan. 11.Stephen Lam / Reuters file

Twitter is testing a downvote feature via a handful of iOS users, the platform announced Wednesday, and experts say they are eager to see how a possible rollout could affect the platform's dynamics.

"Some of you on iOS may see different options to up or down vote on replies. We're testing this to understand the types of replies you find relevant in a convo, so we can work on ways to show more of them. Your downvotes aren't public, while your upvotes will be shown as likes," Twitter said in a tweet.

On social media, many called the new feature a way to give users a "dislike" button. But Twitter said that's not quite the purpose of this test.

In a statement to NBC News, Twitter said testing the up- and downvote feature is a way for the platform to try to understand if they're showing people the best replies for them in a conversation.

"So, we're running a small research experiment to learn what replies people find most relevant during conversations on Twitter," a Twitter spokesperson said in an email. "We are hoping to better understand what people believe are relevant replies and how that matches up to what Twitter suggests as the most relevant replies under a Tweet."

For now, the downvotes, which can't be viewed by the public, will not impact the ranking of replies. While this experiment runs, the "like" button will be removed and instead users can click an "upvote" button.

The move could give users a new way to interact with tweets they find unhelpful or in poor taste. Twitter said it's only using the feature for research at this time, but experts say they're eager to see how the downvote button plays out and how it could shape the future of the platform should it see a wide, public release.

"My guess is that what they're trying to do is give people a more clinical way of expressing their distaste for something on social media," said Scott W. Campbell, chair of the communication and media department at the University of Michigan.

Campbell said although he was not familiar with Twitter's announcement, his knee-jerk reaction to hearing about the test feature was that it could positively affect the site and its culture.

"Thumbs-down is better than [commenting], 'Take a dirt nap,'" he said.

Campbell said he predicts the feature could have "massive unintended consequences."

Brooke Erin Duffy, an associate professor of communications at Cornell University, agreed. Duffy said she worries about how downvoting could be exploited to silence marginalized groups.

"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," Duffy said.

Duffy said the downvoting could allow users to police bad actors, but "concerted hate campaigns" could also allow coordinated downvoting, which could potentially affect how replies are displayed if Twitter were to use the feature as a way to rank certain replies.

"As of now, they're saying they're not going to use it to rank replies, but that's anyone's guess," Duffy added.

Twitter would not be the first platform to have a downvote button, should the feature become permanent. Reddit already allows users to up- and downvote replies to posts, and Facebook gives users the option to pick an emoji response to a post, including happy, angry and sad emojis.

"In some ways, it's clear that they're emulating Reddit, and YouTube, of course, has its like and down-like feature," Duffy said.

As social media has become more polarizing in recent years, Twitter appears to be taking steps to make the site less hostile. In May, the platform released a feature that prompts users to think twice about posting a tweet that could be perceived as cruel or unnecessary.

Other social media giants, like the Facebook-owned Instagram, rolled out features to let users hide like counts on their posts. The move was meant to address ongoing concerns about mental health and users seeking validation through engagement with their posts.

"What I think is interesting is they're billing this to the public in a way that seems very similar to how Instagram pitched its concealment of likes. Namely, as a way to improve the user experience and user safety," Duffy said. "Ultimately, I think these platform decisions and changes ... boil down to bottom-line impact"