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Free speech or scope for manipulation? Why Twitter’s proposed ‘edit’ button is sparking a debate

Twitter has announced that it is working on an ‘edit button’, which has been a long-standing demand from some users. Such a feature would allow users to tweak their tweets after posting them.

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New Delhi: On 1 April, microblogging site Twitter’s announcement that it was working on an “edit button” was met with scepticism. Twitter’s “edit button”, a change users have been demanding for a while now, has been a subject of much debate and conjecture but the microblogging site had made no official announcement until now. 

Twitter’s decision to finally introduce an edit button coincided with Tesla head Elon Musk buying a 9.2 per cent stake in the company, becoming the biggest stakeholder in the company.  

Musk’s coming on board is significant — for long a critic of what he describes as Twitter’s limits on free speech, the billionaire calls himself “a free-speech absolutist


Although Twitter is yet to unveil the details, broadly, the edit button is a feature that will help users delete, correct, and add elements in their already existing tweets without losing any retweets or shares. 

According to Jay Sullivan, Twitter’s Head of Consumer Product, they have “been exploring how to build an edit feature in a safe manner since last year, and plan to begin testing it within @TwitterBlue Labs in the coming months”. 

Twitter Blue is a monthly subscription scheme that allows users to use some of the microblogging site’s premium features for a fee. The service is currently available in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. 

In a series of tweets, Sullivan wrote that the button was “just one feature we are exploring as we work to give people more choice and control over their Twitter experience, foster a healthy conversation, and help people be more comfortable on Twitter”.

The conversation around an edit button on Twitter began with a cryptic tweet by Elon Musk, the billionaire head of Tesla, on 25 March. 

The tweet, which came days before Musk’s stake in Twitter was announced, was a poll asking users if the social media giant adheres to the principle that “free speech is essential to a functioning democracy”. “The consequences of this poll will be important. Please vote carefully,” he said in a second tweet moments later. 

The results of the poll showed that 70.4 per cent users voted “no”. 

In another tweet, posted a day after the announcement of his stake in Twitter, he conducted a poll asking people if they wanted an edit button. As many as 73.6 per cent voters said “yes”

Also read: ‘Facebook knew RSS promotes anti-Muslim narratives but took little action’, whistleblower says

‘Scope for manipulation’

Not everyone, however, is enthusiastic about the idea of an edit button. An opinion piece on Bloomberg authored by columnist Matt Levine said the edit button could be manipulated. 

He wrote, “You post a tweet saying ‘I love puppies’ with a picture of a cute puppy. A thousand people retweet your tweet; a thousand more quote-tweet it with comments like ‘what a good boi!’ A week later you edit the tweet to say, ‘I think the Nazis got a bad rap,’ with a picture of Hitler. Years later, the professor is denied tenure because someone digs through her old tweets to find that she called Hitler “a good boi”. This is absolutely the only purpose for the edit button.”

This was a sentiment widely shared by critics of the move, prominent among them, Twitter’s cofounder and former head Jack Dorsey. 

Dorsey had publicly opposed the idea in 2018 when he said the introduction of this button has to take place the “right way”

“There’s a bunch of things we could do to show a changelog and show how a tweet has been changed and we’re looking at all this stuff,” he said at an interaction in IIT Delhi. “But ultimately we need to make sure we’re solving a real problem and solving a ‘use case’ that people are seeing as friction within the service and making that easy for people to do. We’ve been considering ‘edit’ for quite some time but we have to do it in the right way.”

A ‘use case’ is a feature that’s currently in use.  

Avani Bagga, a social media executive with close to a decade’s experience collaborating with Twitter and Facebook, believes that this feature could help improve workflow but admits to the possibility of manipulation. The solution, according to Bagga, is a time limit for editing tweets.

“People who have to build brand strategies for social media or have to engage frequently on Twitter will find this feature to be a relief,” she said.

“Having said that, I trust Twitter to come up with a time limit for fixing errors. A tweet should not be allowed to change after a specific time and I believe that will help get rid of the manipulation aspect. Live-tweeting will become easier through this and I also think that this will not be a big deal eventually. People will adapt and work around this feature successfully.”

Twitter’s product head Jay Sullivan has acknowledged the fears of possible manipulation and said the platform will approach this feature with care “after actively seeking input and adversarial thinking in advance of launching edit”.

What are other platforms doing?

Meta platform Facebook tried to work around the problem by introducing an “edited” icon below a post or comment to indicate the post had changed since it was first posted. According to the platform’s Chief Technology Officer Andrew Bosworth, that is not a “real issue”. 

However, Instagram, also a Meta platform,  does not have an “edit” feature: Once a picture is posted, one must delete it and repost it to correct any errors. The same goes for comments.

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)

Also read: ‘India to be nuked’, ‘drops 750 bombs in Pakistan’: What made govt block 22 YouTube channels


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