Conspiracy theorists will have a great day with Twitter’s edit button

A phone with the Twitter logo

Twitter is a platform designed to deliver a constant flow of lightning-fast takes and talking points (Picture: Getty)

One of the most upsetting things that can happen to you on Twitter — apart from maybe crypto bros and neo-Nazis — is realizing that there was a typo in the viral tweet you sent earlier.

You rush to delete it before you see that it’s already racked up a few hundred likes and retweets, and you’re forced to make an impossible choice: Do I delete it now, denying myself all that sweet, sweet internet approval?

Or do I leave it and expose myself to the world as an idiot who doesn’t know the difference between “there” and “they are”?

It’s little wonder, then, that Twitter users have been asking for an edit button for quite some time, to ensure they never have to repost a tweet for accidentally calling Kanye West a “ducking idiot.”

Their prayers were finally answered last week when the platform announced it had been working on an editing feature over the past year, after newly formed largest shareholder Elon Musk conducted a poll on his account asking his followers if they that would be interested in.

Many, including myself, have questioned the wisdom of implementing a feature that would allow users to edit past tweets on a platform already rife with misinformation.

The unveiling of the new feature was ambiguous: users were skeptical of Twitter’s claim that the change wasn’t prompted by Musk’s poll, complicated by the fact that the announcement came on April Fool’s Day, leading many to wondering if the edit button was there fact just a massive joke.

For a change that has sparked concerns about increasing the possibility of lying online, it hasn’t been a particularly promising start.

If the past turbulent years have taught us anything, it’s that social media is plagued by malicious actors and propaganda.

Twitter, as a platform designed to deliver a constant flow of lightning-fast takes and talking points, is no exception.

It only takes someone with an agenda to create an anonymous account in minutes, commenting “Actually, I’ve heard the opposite of that is true” under all the information that doesn’t agree with their prejudices, and waiting for a poor, trusting soul hastily adopts them – tweeted conspiracy as gospel.

To me, the main danger of an editing feature is that someone could tweet something harmless, spread it virally, and then turn it into some form of misinformation or hate speech that can reach audiences far beyond what it normally would.

Imagine if, at the height of the pandemic, people had used this method to push anti-vaccine propaganda — resulting in sane people inadvertently sharing misinformation.

Suddenly, your non-technical aunt sees that you’re saying “Dr. Fauci invented Pfizer to make you sterile” – at best she thinks her nephew has cracked up, at worst she’s reconsidering her take on mainstream medicine at the worst possible time.

As a former teacher, I am well aware of how careful some people have to be when using social media and how misunderstandings can become a criminal offense.

I don’t want to find myself commenting “strongly agree” under a tweet that once said, “donuts are better than bagels,” but now reads, “I think 10-year-olds should be conscripted into the military.”

If the past turbulent years have taught us anything, it’s that social media is plagued by malicious actors and propaganda

Jay Sullivan, Twitter’s vice president of consumer product, acknowledged that without “time limits, controls, and transparency over what was edited, Edit could be abused to alter the record of public conversation,” though that’s certainly encouraging , I think it ignores the core nature of Twitter as a platform.

Maybe they’ll implement an “edit history” feature similar to Facebook, allowing users to track changes to posts after the fact, but Twitter is a different platform with a very different approach to information consumption.

In my experience, people aren’t there to do their due diligence; They’re there to scroll through 50 variations of the same joke and then come up with their own even worse version.

As skeptical as I am about the edit button, there are still things Twitter could do to lessen the impact of its abuse.

You could ensure that a tweet cannot be edited after it has received a certain number of likes or impressions to prevent people from capitalizing on a tweet’s popularity.

They might make it impossible to edit a tweet after more than a few minutes, hours, or days. You could restrict changes to people with verified accounts to try and increase accountability (I’m sure that would go down well with those of us not lucky enough to be blessed with the blue tick).

But since trolls and propagandists already manage to wreak enough havoc under the current system, is it crazy to suggest that with that extra margin, they could wreak even more damage no matter how many safeguards are in place?

Toxicity is endemic on social media, and without tough reforms, that seems unlikely to change.

Such reforms are complex and controversial, so it’s unlikely we’ll see them any time soon, but I don’t think we’d be better off prioritizing a product change that could make things worse.

Maybe you’re too smart to be fooled by a sneaky edit—perhaps the fake news and abuse on Twitter just blows over you like a gentle breeze.

If so, good for you.

But many aren’t so lucky, we know that people are vulnerable to misinformation – and if Twitter makes it easier to exploit this vulnerability, we might find that it’s a mistake we can’t undo.

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Justin Scacco

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