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Humans and technology

An edit button won’t fix Twitter’s problems

Twitter’s users have asked for an edit button for years. Giving them one isn’t going to change their behavior for the better.

September 1, 2022
twitter text logo with insert copyedit symbol to add a missing letter T
Stephanie Arnett/MITTR

After years of requests, Twitter is finally introducing an edit button, giving its users the ability to change their tweets up to 30 minutes after they’ve been sent. But the feature is unlikely to solve any of the biggest problems facing the company—and in some cases, it could worsen them.

The feature will initially be restricted to Twitter staff for testing, before rolling out to subscribers to Twitter’s $5 monthly subscription service Blue later this month. Given that Twitter Blue is a test bed for the company’s new features, it’s highly likely that an edit button will be eventually made available for all users.

Twitter has resisted adding the ability to edit tweets for years, even though this has been the most requested feature from its users, including would-be owner Elon Musk. Former chief executive Jack Dorsey said in 2020 that the company would probably never introduce an edit button, explaining that doing so would ruin the “vibe” from Twitter’s early days as an SMS messaging service. 

Experts have repeatedly pointed out that the ability to edit tweets could allow bad actors to rewrite history and spread misinformation, even if a full history of tweets is available. 

For example, harmless tweets that go viral could easily be edited to later display disinformation or hate speech, and even if the tweet’s previous versions are visible, that doesn’t necessarily mean people will look at them. An edit button would also, in theory, make high-profile users whose tweets garner mass attention even bigger targets for hacking, if bad actors know the tweets are guaranteed a mass audience.    

Users will be alerted to the fact that tweets have been edited by an icon, time stamp, and label, which Twitter said is designed to make it clear that the original message has been modified within half an hour of being sent. Tweets can be edited “a few times” within that time frame, and a log of how a tweet has been changed will be displayed when someone taps the label.

"Our goal with testing is to better understand how Edited Tweets will impact the way people use Twitter as well as plan for and anticipate what might happen if we bring it to everyone," a Twitter spokesperson said.

The company has acknowledged that people might misuse the feature and says it is testing for that potential. It’s likely an attempt to downplay the significance, says Konstantinos Komaitis, an internet policy expert.

“Depending on how Twitter decides to design this, it can either help people with typos and there’s nothing more to it, or it can actually shift, I believe, the whole public discourse and the way we interact and share an understanding,” he says.

Giving users an edit button could also be interpreted as a handy distraction from the deeper problems the platform is dealing with: its forthcoming legal tussle with Musk, the glaring privacy and security issues laid bare by former security head turned whistleblower Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, and ongoing concerns about its deep-seated inability to curb trolling, hate speech, and other toxic behaviors. An edit button does nothing to solve these issues. 

Notifying users that a tweet has been edited will be essential to minimizing the possibility for abuse, Komaitis pointed out, using the example of someone tweeting a picture of a cute dog to generate positive responses and then swapping it for a picture of Hitler.

“We know these situations can happen, and it’s not because of Twitter or the internet, but because that’s how society currently functions,” he said, adding that the potential benefits of an edit button are unlikely to outweigh the possibilities for abuse. 

“Twitter needs to come up with as many safeguards as possible in order to ensure that it is purely for small mistakes, or a regrettable choice of words, rather than completely changing the way the conversations are taking place.”

By limiting the feature to paying subscribers at least for now, Twitter could dramatically shrink, although not fully eradicate, the pool of users who are likely to use it maliciously. 

But it also raises questions over whether an edited tweet will count as a real tweet. This could warp the number of daily active users. And it’s also debatable whether using paying subscribers to test the feature is really equivalent to handing it over to the platform’s most toxic user base. 

Ultimately, the popularity of the idea of an edit button speaks to our perfectionism, says Charles Arthur, author of Social Warming: How Social Media Polarizes Us All. 

“We seem bizarrely desirous of this ability to edit our lives—of using technologies to roll back time, which points to a sort of societal anxiety of ‘Oh no, did I say the wrong thing?’” he says.  

“We don’t have the confidence in what we’ve said, even if we’ve got it a bit wrong. The trouble is, anything that can be used maliciously will be used maliciously, and Twitter is the absolute hotbed of people doing malicious things.”

Update: a response from a Twitter spokesperson has been added.

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