Twitter has a new edit button, and misinformation experts are concerned

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Twitter’s new edit button has social media experts concerned about the spread of misinformation online

Typos, broken links, tagging the wrong person.

These are just some of the reasons why Twitter users have been clamoring for years for the platform to add an “edit” function.

Their prayers — sort of — were answered on Thursday, when the company announced it is rolling out an edit button.

Twitter says the feature, which will be available to people who pay to subscribe to Twitter Blue, is being tested with certain users right now and will be rolled out in coming weeks, first in just one country and then beyond.

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“Like any new feature, we’re intentionally testing Edit Tweet with a smaller group to help us incorporate feedback while identifying and resolving potential issues,” the company wrote. “This includes how people might misuse the feature. You can never be too careful.”

The potential for misuse has been a cornerstone of the debate over whether to add an edit button. Some social media experts have warned that malicious actors or trolls will change the message within a viral tweet after the fact. It’s also unclear how existing content moderation policies will be applied to edited tweets.

Grid’s misinformation reporter, Anya van Wagtendonk, spoke with Caroline Orr Bueno, a behavioral scientist who studies social media manipulation, about those concerns and whether the guardrails the company has promised will be enough.

“The main thing is just that balance of risk and effect, and considering whether the benefit of having an edit button is really worth all of those risks,” she said.

In a statement to Grid, a Twitter spokesperson said that edited tweets can be reported in the same fashion as regular tweets.

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“If found in violation, the entire Tweet will be removed (including the original Tweet and any subsequent versions),” the statement read in part. “We’re purposely starting this test with a smaller group to learn and address potential issues before bringing it to more people.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Grid: People have been clamoring for an edit button for years. What do you make of the announcement that Twitter will finally offer one?

COB: I understand why people want it. I get it. I’ve made some typos. But the reason I personally have reservations is because I see the potential downside and unintended consequences a lot more serious than a typo. The use of this is, in my opinion, somewhat limited.

I personally don’t really like to delete tweets. And when I’ve made a typo or something and don’t get to delete it, it is annoying! But somebody could post a tweet that has one meaning — like maybe you’re expressing support for some sort of social justice movement or cause, or you’re tweeting something that is pro-choice or pro-Black Lives Matter or in support of trans people or whatever it may be, and you get a bunch of retweets on it. And then you go back and change it to totally change the meaning.

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So now your tweet with 500 retweets, all of those people now have racist or anti-trans things on their timeline. And then there’s also the potential for smaller but potentially still problematic [outcomes]. My overall take on it is, I just see the potential unintended consequences and the potential downside as being a lot more significant than the actual use of the edit button, which is really just a convenience factor.

G: Are the guardrails Twitter has introduced — like that a post needs to be edited within 30 minutes — strong enough? Could other precautions be put in place?

COB: Having a time limit, I think, does help. It’d be a lot more problematic if you could forever go back and edit your old tweets. Having the label that says, “It’s been edited,” would be a helpful feature. [Being able to see an edit history] is a degree of transparency that I think is helpful.

There are ways to reduce the potential for misuse — people will still misuse it, but that’s also going to be the case with any feature that Twitter rolls out. So, I don’t think that’s necessarily the reason to not have the edit button. I guess I’m a little bit unclear on why people are so excited about it.

One of the other things that concerns me — we’ll see if this becomes a thing or not — but when people know that that option is there, I’m wondering if it will make people almost less careful; they’re tweeting faster, more willing to tweet something very quickly, like with a breaking news story. We see a lot of mistakes often made in reporting breaking news because it’s changing so quickly. And I wonder if we will just see more misinformation end up on the platform just because the ability to edit it is there.


G: Facebook already has an edit feature, and so does Reddit. Is there anything different or unique about how people use Twitter that could make an edit feature a different tool on Twitter than elsewhere?

COB: Twitter tends to be a newsy platform, both because a lot of journalists use Twitter and also just the speed at which information is transmitted on Twitter tends to be faster than on a lot of other platforms. That contributes to the spread of misinformation because when information is flowing that quickly, it really is easy to make an innocent mistake. I’m not even talking about more intentional disinformation, but it’s easy to make innocent mistakes.

[Twitter] almost seems less formal than some other platforms because there is this character limit, and it really started out as people just kind of tweeting out a thought. I think there’s a degree of informality there that can also sometimes make it easier for misinformation to end up on the platform because it’s kind of like, “Eh, it’s just a tweet.”

G: What other questions do you have about this feature?

COB: I don’t know enough about how this feature is going to interact with some of Twitter’s content moderation policies. If you have a brand new account, there’s other things that can kind of flag your account that when you tweet — basically, your tweets stay hidden — and I don’t know if this could be used to sort of circumvent that in any way. Or if it could be used to really quickly tweet something out that is against Twitter’s rules, and then take it back, but kind of doing that intentionally. So, it’s kind of a way to slip under the radar by posting something and then taking it out really quickly.

This article has been updated. Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Anya van Wagtendonk
    Anya van Wagtendonk

    Misinformation Reporter

    Anya van Wagtendonk is the misinformation reporter at Grid, focusing on the impact of false information on policy, elections and social behavior.

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