Some years ago I wrote a post proposing that Twitter could (should!) implement a retract button.

I still think the proposal is valid and compelling.

I recently listened to the great Techdirt podcast episode where Mike Masnick (@mmasnick) talks to Cathy Gellis (@cathygellis) and Parker Higgins (@xor) about "Old Tweets & Your Permanent Record"1, and it prompted me to think a little deeper about my initial proposal.

The podcast discussion was inspired by Parker's2 post on how Twitter should allow users to hide their tweets (rather than deleting them).

The context is that some famous Twitter users have recently got into trouble because their feeds have been searched for inappropriate tweets, which have then been used to cause them hassle in their professional lives ("She's a racist, the New York Times shouldn't hire her!" or "He promoted paedophilia, Disney should sack him!"). Without being able to cite specifics, I'm guessing that this context results in tweets being deleted. In some cases, I'm sure, whole accounts have been deleted. The result is messy: tweets having been removed from conversational or other contextual flows, links having been broken, conversations' continuities have been reduced, etc. Sometimes, it's more than just messy: as discussed in the podcast, people can delete whole bunches of tweets, and then regret it later because some were personally valuable, after which there's no going back3.

I wonder if my proposal might help. Also, I've added some aspects to it that, perhaps, may make it more attractive.

Correct, clarify, retract.

Twitter4 should offer the ability to users to either correct, clarify or retract a tweet.

Unfortunately, I'm not very good at mocking up screens, so I ask you to imagine what I describe. If you would like to volunteer some mock-ups, I'm at @eibhear@twitter.com or @eibhear@social.gibiris.org and I would be very grateful for your help.

In Twitter, an author's tweet comes with a menu (click on the shallow "v" at the top-right corner of the tweet) that allows you to perform a number of actions, including to delete the tweet. I suggest that there could be some other options, perhaps under a sub-menu with Edit as the name, offering Correct, Clarify and Retract as options.

So, what will happen with these options?

Upon selecting each of these, the author of the original tweet will be presented with the ability to reply to it, and will (if they wish, I guess) enter an explanation of what's happening. This could be a thread, if necessary. Once submitted, the interesting things happen:

  1. The original tweet will be updated in a prominent way with one of the following
    • "The author has added a correction to this tweet."
    • "The author has provided a clarification to this tweet"
    • "The author has retracted this tweet"
  2. The explanation provided forever will be the first reply to the original tweet: users won't be able to say they couldn't find it.
  3. [Maybe: I haven't thought this one out fully] It won't be possible to reply to or retweet the original tweet.
  4. Where the original tweet was retweeted or embedded elsewhere, the fact that the tweet has been corrected, or clarified, or retracted will be made clear to the user.
  5. As mentioned in my previous post, all other users who engaged with the original tweet beforehand will receive a notification that this correction or clarification or retraction has happened.

Some examples

Correction

Imagine some lumpen idiot who makes reference to @mmasnick in a tweet and then types out his name as "Mick", but doesn't noticing that until after it has been pointed out to him5.

MikeNotMick.png

It would be nice to be able to add a correction to the tweet to say that it should have been "Mike" and for it to be prominent for anyone who comes along.

Clarification
Remember that tweet you sent that made sense to you right up to the moment just after you submitted it, and then you started to doubt yourself? And then your doubts are confirmed by all the replies with "Wut?" and "Well, actually…"? To delete it, and then to send a clarification, presents the problem that all those replies are set afloat in a sea of noncontext, and then its hard for people to know what's happening. With my proposal, you could follow the original post with a clarification, which jumps out at you when you visit the original. Now other users understand the context of the full conversation.
Retraction
My original point. Sometimes you say something that you really regret. Maybe you said something long in the past that now runs counter to your current opinion. The standard approach is to delete the tweet. I have never been convinced that this is the correct approach, however, especially for people who want to acknowledge that they were wrong with the original post. Having been in that situation myself, I understand the risk that a tweet that lives on could be taken out of context no matter how clear you are in your retraction. These tweets are the best fodder for those who want to destroy your employment or personal relationships, but to remove them completely is a regretful corruption of the historical record, and essentially denies it happened. But pretenting such a denial may very well back-fire.

Why, though?

I believe that deleting tweets is wrong. I won't try to convert anyone else to this view, but I would like help those who agree with me regarding what I say above to use alternative approaches – at least on a case-by-case basis.

Essentially, to delete a tweet – especially one that others have engaged with – is not appropriate in all but a very small number of scenarios. People delete tweets to correct typos (Correction: this is the only reason I delete tweets from my personal account), to rephrase them (Clarification), to ensure that they are not used against them (Retraction) or because they are embarrassed by them (Deletion: in no way am I arguing that users shouldn't be permitted to delete tweets). For me only the last reason is compelling enough to delete a tweet, and even then I would recommend retraction instead.

Have a read of The Intercept's A Note to Readers, in which it outlines how it found out that one of its staff members had been fabricating parts of stories he had written and were published on the site. Instead of removing the stories, The Intercept added "corrections and editor's notes" to them, even going so far as retracting one story in full.

This, in my view, is the correct approach: the record remains intact but the follow-up that corrects or clarifies or retracts the original is prominently presented to all parties.

In my scheme, Twitter will include the notice of correction, clarification or retraction with embeds and retweets (even historical retweets – a tweet from 5 years ago that was retracted last week should be obviously retracted to someone reviewing the retweeter's timeline now). Therefore, each reviewing user will be offered the chance to dig a tiny bit deeper into the context before deciding to rant, report, or call for a sacking.

Yes, of course: screen grabs will always allow bad-faith actors to remove or deny context. However, if this proposal is implemented, then it will (should!) be clear that if there isn't a link to the original post accompanying screen grab, then the person presenting the screen grab may not have good-faith intentions.

Finally, I think it's important that the users who have replied to the original, or retweeted it, receive a notification that the correction or clarification or retraction has happened. This offers those users the opportunity to pass information regarding that event on to their own followers, especially if they have tweeted something about the original that they feel needs a follow-up.

The elusive edit-tweet feature

Imagine the scenario: a seemingly nice person posts a tweet with "I love cats". As expected it gets loads of "likes"6. Then, some time later, that seemingly-nice person used Twitter's Edit Tweet feature to change it from "I love cats" to "I think fascism is great". Those loads of likes remain, and anyone viewing the list of people who liked the original post will see what they consider to be a list of fascists.

This is why Twitter doesn't offer an Edit Tweet feature.

However, many want to be able to make changes to tweets they have posted, and the only option to them is to delete it and re-post. My proposal offers a compelling alternative to pure editing of tweets, I believe.

Footnotes:

1
Ampersand in the original.
2
There must be something up with me, and I don't think it's the new beer I'm drinking as I write this: I typed "Mr. Higgins'" and "Higgins'" and then decided that "Parker's" was probably the best approach as the others were too formal. I hope I'm right, and I wonder why I worry about these things
3
Parker does mention in his post that users can archive their tweets, and may be able to repost them somewhere else, but this could only ever be a part-solution, as conversations would still be broken
4
Yes. Yes. And the others, like GNU Social, Pleroma, Mastodon, etc. I will get to that in a subsequent post
5
His reply to my tweet about his podcast came in as I was typing this post
6
I still prefer "favourite", even though I don't even like that description