You've asked for it. I've asked for it. Your physical therapist who loves to tweet about Lebron James being washed up has asked for it. And now we're getting it.
My friends, we're talking about a Twitter edit button. The social media giant announced (via tweet, of course) on Tuesday that it was going to start testing an edit button with Twitter Blue users soon. But while everyone, including Twitter's newest board member, has pushed for the ability to edit tweets, we're about to get a heck of a lot more than we bargained for. The edit button could very well kick Twitter's worst traits — harassment, hate speech and misinformation — into overdrive.
The innocuous benefits of an edit button are clear. Who doesn't hate going viral only to discover a dumb typo in their tweet? A nightmare, really. It could also allow journalists and government officials to correct erroneous information in tweets rather than having to issue a threaded correction or deleting what could be — at least in the case of official government accounts — a public record. Good, great.
But the ideal internet is one thing. The internet we actually have is another beast entirely. Twitter has certainly made some efforts to clean up the platform's biggest sources of misinformation and purveyors of hate speech, booting a number of white nationalists and even former President Donald Trump after he incited a violent attempted coup last January. But the platform has still struggled to contain misinformation during Russia's war against Ukraine while at the same time temporarily banning accounts helping track Russian actions that could help Ukrainians stay safe. (Twitter said it was a human error.)
Introducing an edit button is a recipe for more chaos to ensue. It's easy to imagine troll farms working to crank out random viral tweets, only to change the text to propaganda when one actually hits. White nationalists, climate deniers, state actors or just any user looking to mess with people could do the same.
Details are in short supply with how Twitter will implement its edit button. One mitigating factor could be a time limit for editing tweets. It's also totally possible — likely even — that users will be able to see if a tweet has been edited. But how many will click to see the original text is a totally different story. And even if people do click to see the pre-edit tweet text, they'll still be exposed to propaganda, hate speech or whatever else someone has decided to change. (Facebook has this option and it's not like the platform is a paragon of propriety.)
There are also questions about how Twitter's algorithm will handle edited tweets. Will it make it so they appear in people's timelines less often post-editing or will it just keep serving it up? Will edited tweets end up in curated moments? Will they appear at the top of trending topics based on the retweets they garnered before being edited? All these questions raise major concerns. Throttling updates to an initially erroneous tweet will slow the spread of good information. But not throttling a tweet changed to include misinformation — say, a climate denial group turning a tweet about cats into one about how sunspots are causing the planet to overheat (they're not) — will give bad information normally trapped in a small echo chamber a much wider reach.
This matters to users of the platform. The online world is already rife with lies, and adding more to the pile will make our daily existence that much more exhausting trying to discern fact from fiction and be yet another blow to democracy and shared reality. But it could also create a business headache for Twitter. If the edit button brings a new wave of misinformation, it's an open question of how brands will feel with their tweets — promoted or otherwise — next to a viral tweet about a gas pump with nearly 55,000 retweets that's been turned into one about, say, anti-vaccine talking points or targeted harassment.
None of this is to say an edit button will be misused, of course. But if the past is any indication...