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Twitter tests edit button as experts warn it could be misused

Users have been asking for the ability to edit tweets for years. But the feature could also facilitate misinformation.

Twitter is testing a long-awaited edit button. (Winni Wintermeyer/For The Washington Post)
5 min

At long last, Twitter is testing one of its most frequently requested features: the edit button.

The social media company announced Thursday that employees internally are testing the ability to edit a tweet shortly after it’s posted. The feature will expand this month to subscribers of Twitter’s premium service, called Twitter Blue, first in New Zealand and then in Australia, Canada and the United States.

When, or if, it will be extended to the rest of Twitter’s 230 million users is uncertain.

Not everyone wants an edit button, and the feature is already provoking backlash. Some experts warned that the edit button could be used to spread misinformation, or to edit a tweet that has already been shared widely, changing it into a different message.

Twitter said it will add a label to edited tweets that will allow users to click in and see the history of the tweet and its changes.

The feature has other limitations. Tweets can only be edited during the first 30 minutes after they are posted, and they will be labeled with an icon to let others know the tweet has been changed.

“Like any new feature, we’re intentionally testing Edit Tweet with a smaller group to help us incorporate feedback while identifying and resolving potential issues,” the company wrote in a blog post. “This includes how people might misuse the feature. You can never be too careful.”

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Rachel Tobac, an ethical hacker and CEO of SocialProof Security, offered a hypothetical example of how the feature could go awry.

“Somebody will tweet something that says, ‘These two celebrities just started dating,’” she said. “It goes viral. Fifteen to 20 minutes later, they go in and they change that to a crypto scam, a phishing link, voting disinformation.”

That’s particularly dangerous on Twitter because of the service’s influential audience and fast-moving dynamics, Tobac added, noting that false tweets have been known to move markets within minutes or even seconds.

While she said she appreciated Twitter’s efforts to build in precautions for the edit feature, she predicts the harm will outweigh the benefits.

“I don’t think we need to add in another potential disinformation feature that could be abused ahead of the next election cycle.”

Tracy Chou, CEO of the tech start-up Block Party and an expert on online harassment, said she shares the concern that people will exploit the edit feature but is cautiously optimistic about the company’s approach to implementing it so far.

Chou said labeling tweets as edited and showing their edit history are “table stakes” for a responsible edit feature, while the time limit for edits could help at least mitigate the likelihood of tweets being maliciously revised after they’ve already gone viral.

She also said that restricting its use to paying users would be “a good way to limit it to the people who really want it.”

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Twitter confirmed this year that it has been working on an edit button since last year after billionaire Elon Musk tweeted a poll asking if people wanted the feature. More than 73 percent of respondents said yes.

Some accessibility advocates have also called for Twitter to give users the ability to add text descriptions of images — known as “alt text” — to tweets after they’ve been posted. That would allow blind people and others to understand tweets with visual elements by using technology that reads such descriptions aloud.

Twitter spokesperson Shaokyi Amdo said that will be possible in the edit feature the company is testing, though users will have to remove and re-upload the image to the tweet to add the alt text. Amdo confirmed that means the edit feature will allow users to add or change images and videos attached to a tweet, in addition to the text.

The suggestion that the feature will be offered first to Twitter Blue subscribers comes as Twitter is looking for ways to earn additional revenue amid a downturn in digital advertising, which forms the lion’s share of its revenue. Growth in Twitter’s ad revenue stalled last quarter.

Twitter even explored developing a feature that would allow creators of adult content to charge for subscriptions on the platform, with Twitter taking a cut, before halting the project amid concerns over child exploitation.

Asked whether the edit button will remain a paid Twitter Blue feature in the long run, Amdo did not answer directly, but said that understanding “what might happen if we bring it to everyone” was part of the point of testing it on a smaller group.

Twitter has had a rocky year, both in the stock market and internally after Musk launched a $44 billion hostile takeover of the company. He later filed to terminate the deal. Twitter and Musk are now embroiled in a lawsuit over the deal, which is set for trial in October.

Last week, The Washington Post reported that the company’s former head of security, Peiter Zatko, filed a whistleblower complaint with regulators, alleging that the company had lax security practices. Twitter has pushed back on the allegations.