Another issue naysayers are likely to have with Twitter’s edit feature as currently designed is that it initially hides the context of what was changed from other users. Twitter’s short, snappy style of conversation means users often don’t fully take in the content of posts they share—as evidenced by the platform’s June 2020 introduction of a prompt asking users if they wanted to actually read articles they retweeted before sharing to their network. It is unclear whether users confronted with a viral tweet shared to their feed will interrogate its edit history to see whether the content of the tweet is what it was when shared. Precedent would suggest it’s unlikely.
Yevgeniy Golovchenko, a postdoctorate researcher at the University of Copenhagen who analyses the spread of mis- and disinformation, acknowledges the risks of bad actors manipulating the feature to their advantage, but he also sees it as a potentially beneficial change for those without nefarious goals. Currently, if a Twitter user accidentally posts something that is incorrect and their error is pointed out, they have to choose between keeping the misleading and potentially embarrassing tweet up and deleting it. “I’m guessing that the edit button would remove this dilemma to some extent,” he says. “It will make it easier for the Twittersphere to correct itself. This could potentially be quite a meaningful change when it comes to fighting misinformation.”
Jean Burgess, professor of digital media at Queensland University of Technology and the author of a book on Twitter, also thinks it’s an overall positive change. “The safeguards, the time limit, and transparency measures—providing notification that something has been edited, and being able to reveal the previous version—seem to address most of the key concerns around potential misuse,” she says. “The core early adopter Twitter community has long asked for this. It’s a good faith move and should be pretty noncontroversial, but we should always be prepared for nefarious actors to surprise us, I guess.”
There are, of course, limitations to the way the edit functionality works when it comes to accidentally sharing incorrect information. As anyone who’s ever spent time on Twitter knows, content isn’t solely shared through retweets. Some users choose to screenshot other people’s tweets as an image and share those, rather than using Twitter’s built-in retweet functionality. People may well capture an image of a pre-edited tweet that still lives on through resharing on the platform—potentially eclipsing the reach of any corrected tweet. Another issue—one no platform can solve—is that any fix to correct information only exists on the platform itself: Many users will have already seen the original, incorrect tweet and will never see a corrected version.
In addition, the edit button change is unlikely to mean much to the majority of Twitter users. “The edit option relates to a minority of users who tweet,” says Elinor Carmi, lecturer in digital society at City, University of London, who specializes in digital literacy. “It might look like more because we follow and interact with the more ‘loud’ ones,” she adds, “but they are definitely not the majority.”
Carmi also worries that the edit functionality will make it easier for those in positions of power to shirk responsibility for their words. “In terms of editing for high-profile users, this is an opportunity but also a concern because by not being able to edit tweets we can keep politicians, for example, to account for things they say,” she says. “If they keep editing their tweets, that makes it harder to follow and scrutinize them.” While the edit function would keep track of what their tweets originally said, and how they were altered, the edit history as currently designed is hidden behind a prompt that users have to click on to see.
These are all issues Twitter claims in its blog post to have in mind—thus the closed-off nature of its initial tests. But they’re fundamental problems that need to be tackled in order for the feature to succeed, and as we’re increasingly learning, what’s said on social media can have a significant impact on our society and lives.