No ‘covfefe’, no ‘pedo guy’: the danger of Twitter’s edit button

Twitter has finally confirmed that it will roll out an edit button and while it’s a function that users have been demanding for some time, it could make things a lot worse on the social media platform.

For a service already beset by constant misinformation and harassment, an edit button for tweets may seem a sensible addition but its potential to cause mischief shouldn’t be underestimated.

The initial call for an edit button was an acknowledgment from users that a fix was needed for tweets with embarrassing typos. Currently, the only way to fix errors is to delete the tweet and repost a fixed one, meaning all the engagement- replies and retweets of the original message – are lost.

But as time’s moved on, one has to believe that few Twitter users authentically want an edit button. This is the platform through which a United States president made policy decisions for four long years, and invented the word covfefe, and inspired an insurrection.

It’s a platform where we can hold celebrities (and everyone) to account for their poor taste and judgement. And it’s a platform people rely on to get the news from situations like the invasion of Ukraine, even if an avalanche of misinformation is usually close behind.

Do we really need the ability to materially change the meaning of a tweet, after collecting replies, likes, retweets and embeds? To walk back or change part of a statement without leaving a big condemnatory hole that says, “tweet not available”?

Some extreme examples of how this could go wrong. Someone sends a tweet excusing domestic violence and then, after controversy, edits it to a much milder take, so all the angry quote tweets now look like people are over-reacting to a mild statement. Or a hacker accesses the account of a prominent person and edits a tweet to include a malicious link, which automatically goes out to every retweet, quote and news article embed that the original tweet was in. A businessperson says something that could get them in big regulatory trouble, but edits it to a more legally responsible message after the damage is done.

It’s already depressingly common on Twitter for people to build up profiles for themselves by tweeting hundreds of facts and predictions, and then deleting most of them to only leave the stuff that makes them seem look like a trustworthy source in hindsight. An edit function could make it even easier to engage in this kind of trickery.

The latest prominent cheerleader for an edit button is billionaire troublemaker Elon Musk; the same person who has faced fraud (for pumping up Twitter stock) and defamation (for calling someone who ridiculed him “pedo guy”) charges for tweets he might have considered editing had the option been available. Oh, and earlier this week it was revealed Musk spent $4 billion on a 9 per cent stake in Twitter, earning himself a spot on its board. So get ready for edit button.

Antithetical though editing is seemingly the entire point and function of Twitter, so if and when editing tweets becomes an option we can only hope the function comes with limitations. Perhaps an edited tweet could contain a version history that anyone can check. Or maybe you only get thirty seconds after posting to make your change.

But, so far, neither Twitter nor Musk have expressed any particular desire for this kind of transparency.

The company’s comms team, in a tweet, implied that it was always going to roll out an edit button, and that despite suspicious timing its announcement had nothing to do with Musk’s investment.

That’s tough to reconcile with the fact that, a day earlier, Twitter’s chief executive retweeted Musk’s latest poll on the matter and told users it would have consequences.

One of them may have to reach for that edit button.

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