Twitter’s Edit Button Is a Bigger Deal Than You Think

It’s all about information integrity

  • Twitter is working on an edit button for tweets. 
  • It looks likely that there will be a time limit for edits.
  • Safeguards are needed to protect the integrity of public discourse.
Someone typing on a smartphone in a cafe with blue and orange speech bubbles overlaying the device.

ersinkirsacik / Getty Images

Soon you will be able to edit your tweets to remove that embarrassing typo—or make it say something entirely different. 

Twitter is—finally—working on an edit button for tweets. In a thread on—where else?—the company announced that it would be allowing users to fix up mistakes after publishing. Currently, the only way to correct a tweet is to delete it and then publish a new one, which removes context and separates it from replies to the original. So being able to edit a tweet in place sounds like a great idea—as long as it's done well.

"The edit button will allow users to fix embarrassing typos and grammatical errors. But it could also be used to change the tone or meaning of a tweet after it has already been read and interpreted by others. While this could be seen as a positive development, some worry that it will give rise to 'fake news' and make it difficult to trust the information that appears on Twitter," social media expert and influencer coach Chris Grayson told Lifewire via email.

Fancy Editing

Despite the official announcement, there's no timeline for Twitter's edit button. Twitter's head of consumer product Jay Sullivan says that it will begin testing "in the coming months" via Twitter Blue Labs and seeking feedback on how it works exactly. 

Editing tweets for typos and the like is clearly a non-problem, but as soon as you add an edit button, you alter the public record. If a tweet gets a lot of attention, negative or positive, it would be possible for the author to modify the original text to change its meaning. 

Without things like time limits, controls, and transparency about what has been edited, Edit could be misused to alter the record of the public conversation.

Thus, somebody could tweet a picture of baby goats in pajamas and then swap in a political message after those sweet little goats garner enough retweets and positive replies. This example might sound ridiculous, but it shows the malleability of truth that's possible when you can edit your message. 

The Message

One answer, which seems to be on Twitter's agenda, is to time limit editing. Five minutes would give you enough time to fix typos and broken links or reconsider that rage tweet you probably shouldn't have published, but it wouldn't allow people to alter their tweets after they had entered the public discourse.

"Without things like time limits, controls, and transparency about what has been edited, Edit could be misused to alter the record of the public conversation," says Sullivan on Twitter. "Protecting the integrity of that public conversation is our top priority when we approach this work." 

"The record of the public conversation" is the important part here. Twitter isn't just for baby goat gifs. Donald Trump's entire presidential regime was enacted on Twitter. All edits should probably be made transparent. A tweet might have a badge to show that it has been edited, just like on many internet forum posts. Clicking that badge might show the version history of that tweet, so journalists and other fact-checkers could easily get to the truth. 

Or users with a blue tick won't be able to edit their tweets. As a verified blue-tick Twitter user, you already consider yourself a public figure, so we might argue that you, therefore, have a greater responsibility. 

Closeup on a smartphone displaying a Twitter feed.

Daddy Mohlala / Unsplash

Track Record

Those problems are for Twitter to work out, but it doesn’t have a great track record with this kind of thing. Just this week, Twitter changed how it handles deleted tweets. Previously, if a tweet had been embedded in another website, that embedded version would persist, even when the original was deleted. 

This week, Twitter changed that so those embedded tweets show up as blank boxes if the original was deleted. How will embeds be handled when tweets are editable? Will embeds show the original? Will they, too, be marked as edited?

It’s a complicated issue. On the one hand, individuals should be able to delete mistakes or tweets that contain personal information or anything they have posted. On the other, when Twitter is used by politicians or tweets can be used as evidence against crimes, shouldn’t they be preserved? And if preserved, should they remain public?

Twitter has to fix this. Perhaps the answer is to keep things as they are. After all, what’s the odd typo when weighed against the alternatives?

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