Ethics and Edits: Twitter’s New Edit Feature Sparks Debate

On April 1st, Twitter announced plans to add a new feature: the long-desired edit button. While details of how this new feature will be implemented remain a mystery, the decision has sparked debate on the integrity of a tweet itself, free speech, and the potential nefarious activity that an edit button could permit.

It’s a familiar feeling of embarrassment: tweeting a funny quip or a hot take only to realize there is a soul-crushing typo in what could very quickly become a viral moment. An edit button could fix that, forever eradicating typo shame. Popular Twitter users like Kim Kardashian, Ice T, and Katy Perry have been asking for an edit button for years, and finally, their wish has been granted.

But beyond fixing simple typos a moment or two after posting, many are concerned that the ability to alter the core meaning of an individual tweet could result in misinformation, disinformation, and chaos.

“You need to design any new feature of this nature with the worst-case scenario in mind,” says Christina Wodtke, who lectures on computer science at Stanford University.

No official decision has been announced on how this will be integrated into Twitter.

Twitter’s Big Tweet

“We’ve been exploring how to build an Edit feature in a safe manner since last year and plan to begin testing it with Twitter Blue Labs in the coming months,” tweeted Jay Sullivan, Head of Consumer Product for Twitter.

No sooner had Twitter made the historic announcement of adding this feature than the word “safety” entered the conversation.

“Without things like time limits, controls, and transparency about what has been edited, Edit could be misused to alter the record of the public conversation,” says Sullivan. “Protecting the integrity of that public conversation is our top priority when we approach this work.”

Transparency, safety, and the ethical concerns of public and free speech are being robustly discussed in the wake of this news.

If Twitter’s Head of Consumer Product is any indication, some people are taking a reactive stance to potentially dangerous behavior as a result of what seems on the surface like a simple and long-overdue feature.

If edit has been the most requested Twitter feature for years now, why is it only just being discussed?

The Elon Musk Factor

Days after Twitter’s initial mention of an edit button – which some believed to be an April Fools Day joke – Elon Musk revealed that he was the majority shareholder of Twitter. This move resulted in a 27% increase in Twitter’s stock, the largest single-day gain in the company’s history.

Musk, the richest man in the world with a net worth of $273 billion, is the CEO of Tesla and runs a rocket company called Space Exploration Technologies Corp (formally SpaceX).

He disclosed a 9.2% majority stake in Twitter, which means he owns a higher percentage of the company than former CEO Jack Dorsey, Vanguard Group, and Morgan Stanley.

Musk has been a vocal critic of Twitter. In March, he tweeted, “Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy. Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?” His tweet included a poll that returned 29% voting yes and 70% voting in the negative.

After becoming a majority shareholder, Musk conducted another Twitter poll asking: “Do you want an edit button?” Again, users could select the loosely coded “yse” for yes and “on” for no. 73% of users who responded to the poll were in favor of an edit button.

Twitter’s response was strange, if not illuminating. “Yes, we’ve been working on an edit feature since last year,” Twitter said before adding, “no, we didn’t get the idea from a poll.”

While Twitter is firm in its assertion that Musk’s majority shareholding has no impact on their decision to roll out an edit feature, the timing is, if not suspicious, then at least curious.

Parallel Tweets

Facebook and Instagram already have an edit feature, so what has been the holdup with Twitter?

Experts like Sullivan and Wodtke are wary of this new feature, citing the potential harm that editing tweets could cause. A tweet has long been compared to a text message or an email, two methods of communication that cannot be edited. And while a typo may be embarrassing, does it warrant an overhaul on how people send, read, and interact with tweets?

Curious still is the ominous message following Musk’s poll regarding Twitter’s free speech practices.

He tweeted, “The consequences of this poll will be important. Please vote carefully.” It is the same language used by Twitter’s CEO, Parag Agrawal.

When Musk polled his followers to see if they wanted an edit button, Agrawal replied, “The consequences of this poll will be important. Please vote carefully.”

The parallel language suggests these decisions are more serious than eradicating harmless typos. An edit feature could change the way we use Twitter forever.

“Musk is someone who could seemingly use an edit button,” says time. “His Tweet about taking Tesla private at $420 per share, when funding was not secured, led to a $40 million SEC settlement and a requirement that Musk’s tweets be approved by a corporate lawyer.”

The potential consequences of an edit feature may be on the horizon, but with so little decided about how the new button will be used, the exact shape those consequences will take remains to be seen, but may be a moot point now.

In case you didn't catch the news yesterday, the Twitter Board of Directors approved Musk's bid to buy Twitter and take it private again. Following the announcement, he shared a list of other improvements he hopes to code into the platform.  The purchase was met with a fair amount of backlash, but Musk tweeted that he hopes, “…even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means”

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Justin McDevitt is a playwright and essayist from New York City. His latest play HAUNT ME had its first public reading at Theater for the New City in September. He is a contributor for RUE MORGUE where he lends a queer eye to horror cinema in his column STAB ME GENTLY.