We survived four years of a Trump presidency, two years of a global pandemic, the ever-worsening impacts of climate change and the beginnings of a horrific war. But if you look outside, you’ll notice that (hopefully) nothing is on fire. That’s because the universe is still being held together by one small, glimmering, spider web-thin thread, and it’s that Twitter doesn’t have an edit button.
On April Fool’s Day, Twitter tweeted that it was working on an edit button. Thankfully, it was just a joke. But things have gotten a bit more serious this week: Elon Musk bought 9.2% of Twitter for $3 billion and took a board seat. Then, he asked his 80.5 million followers if they would like an edit button. So far, around 73% of over 3 million respondents have voted “yse.”
Twitter users have clamored for an edit button since the days of 140-character tweets. But, like that time when you ate a whole pizza even though you’re lactose intolerant and didn’t take your Lactaid, sometimes we want things that aren’t good for us.
Tumblr still refers to itself as the wild west, but back before 2015, it was even worse — anyone could reblog your posts and have full editing control over them, making it look like you said something that you never said. In the best case scenario, maybe this taught some young millennials that you can’t believe everything you can see on the internet, but this ability was weaponized to the point that young adult fiction author John Green was bullied off of the platform, prompting Tumblr to fix the “feature.”
Targeted harassment is bad enough, but Tumblr and Twitter have fundamentally different user bases — one still cares about “Supernatural” in the year 2022, and one is the de facto watercooler for politicians, venture capitalists, tech executives and journalists alike. Unlike Tumblr, a theoretical edit button on Twitter would only let you edit your own tweets, we presume, but it’s not hard to imagine how a bad actor could take advantage of a feature like this. Maybe an innocuous tweet about a cute cat goes viral, only for the original poster to change the text to some sort of political message, inadvertently making it look like everyone who reblogged it had agreed with this message. Things could get messy really quickly.
One answer could be to implement an edit button that indicates when a post has been edited and allows users to see the edit history. After all, that’s what Facebook does, but it’s not as though Facebook is known for its ability to mitigate misinformation.
Last month, Snopes uncovered a crypto scam in which the perpetrator edited ten years of Facebook posts to make users think that it was the legitimate profile of economist David Rosenberg (it wasn’t). These edited posts showed ten years of history about how the fake Rosenberg supposedly helped people get out of debt through investing in crypto. As a result, the scammer’s wallet address had received about 3.4 bitcoin (or around $150,000).
Director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and former chief security officer at Facebook, Alex Stamos tweeted that these kinds of scam tactics could also be applied on Twitter with an edit button. Reached about his tweet, Stamos told TechCrunch that he has seen these kinds of tactics successfully used by cryptocurrency scammers to steal millions of dollars.
There are a few pain points on Twitter that an edit button would solve, like being able to retroactively fix typos. For journalists reporting breaking news on the go, a simple slip of the thumb could change something like “Musk bought 9.2% of Twitter” (correct) to “Musk bought 99.2% of Twitter” (horrifying). But these mistakes are best mitigated by the journalist owning up to the mistake and correcting the error in a subsequent tweet — one technique could be screenshotting the tweet, deleting it, and posting an update alongside the screenshot that corrects the mistake. This method isn’t perfect, as people could have already seen the false information, but an edit button doesn’t necessarily help, because anyone who saw the tweet before the edit won’t know that it was later fixed.
Twitter Blue, the platform’s subscription product, already has a feature that delays the publication of a tweet by a few seconds (users can choose for how long) — before that time period elapses, you can hit an “undo” button, which lets you go back and edit the Tweet before it actually posts. For issues as ordinary as typos, this feature enough should suffice. But if Musk’s followers get their way and Twitter creates an edit button… now that’s something we will actually lose sleep over.