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Editing tweets and iMessages could have bad consequences

HHave you ever texted or shared something online that you instantly regretted? Most of us have.

Facing the ramifications of saying something thoughtless, reckless, or reckless can be a daunting prospect for anyone who frequently communicates by writing messages and then blasting them out into the digital ether. Now, a growing number of apps and services offer users the compelling ability to edit those messages.

In the last month alone, two tech giants, Twitter and Apple, have introduced editing features. Twitter kicked off September by announcing it would begin testing an edit button, first internally and then among subscribers of its paid service Twitter Blue. Two weeks after that move, Apple released its new iOS 16 operating system, which allows users, for the first time, toedit and send iMessages. Amid these developments, tech analysts have continued to raise concerns about how these features could be used for nefarious purposes, such as spreading disinformation.

It’s a trend that speaks to users’ desire to talk freely online without thinking too much about what they’re sharing, he says. Mor Naaman, professor of information sciences at Cornell Tech. “People want to present themselves in the best light, but they also want to share freely without excessive cognitive load,” he says. “The edit button, if it works well, can support both goals.”

Editing tools have been a long-sought feature on both services. But demand for a Twitter edit button, in particular, reached new heights earlier this year after Elon Musk surveyed his followers as to whether they wanted one, shortly before he made an offer to buy the company.

How Apple’s edit button works

Given the success of editing tools on platforms like Facebook, RedditY Loose, Christina Wodtke, a professor of computer science at Stanford University, says it’s somewhat surprising that Twitter and Apple haven’t gotten there sooner. “It’s been pretty common to be able to edit your web posts for a long time, since the very first web forums,” he says. “Apple and Twitter have a legacy of being built on mobile devices, rather than the web. And a mobile SMS usually has no issues. But now people ask, why not?

Apple has responded by introducing an editing tool in iMessage. Users can now edit an iMessage up to five times within 15 minutes of sending and unsend any message up to two minutes after it is sent. To do this, users just need to long-press on their sent message, then select “edit” or “undo send.”

The recipient of the message will receive an alert that it has been edited or not sent, and can tap “Edited” to view previous versions of the message.

These new capabilities have the potential to alter the way people view private messages, says Naaman. “The messages looked like postcards. No one expects you to go over to their house and edit that Hawaii postcard you sent them,” he says. “But we expect to be able to edit, say, our Facebook profile, at any time. If the implementation is successful, expectations will change and edits will be acceptable.”

How the Twitter edit button works

On Twitter, users will be able to edit a tweet up to five times within 30 minutes of posting it. Once a change is made, a tweet will be marked with an icon, a timestamp, and a label that says “Last Edited,” which users can click to see how the tweet has been edited.

The button will give people a “generous” time frame to work their tweets out in the court of public opinion, says Wodtke. “What they’re doing is creating an edit button that allows the Twitter audience to be their personal editor,” she says. “So if he said something that’s silly, he could quickly change it to be more clear or less open to being misunderstood.”

Twitter says the feature was intentionally designed to be transparent and protect the integrity of the conversation. “We are deliberately starting this test with a smaller group to learn and address potential issues before rolling it out to more people,” a Twitter spokesperson says.

Why edit buttons are controversial

To ensure editing tools are used in good faith, experts say tech companies need to take certain precautions. The importance of an “editing trail” that prevents the spread of misinformation and disinformation cannot be overstated, says Wodtke. Especially when the information is part of the public record. “[Twitter] it has the moral imperative to show the history of the editions”, he says.

Twitter’s implementation of an edit button indicates that it is trying to avoid striking a balance between allowing self-expression and abuse, says Naaman. He says that one of the main threats the company is probably trying to protect against is users editing a tweet after it went viral to completely change its meaning. “Such editing, while available through the interface, may not be immediately visible to people who are only viewing the shared tweet,” he says.

Even with these safeguards, Wodtke predicts that bad actors will still find ways to take advantage of the feature. “Every time you release something, no matter how well you and your team thought about it, people will find new ways to use it,” he says. “This is definitely no exception. I think we’re going to see a lot of shenanigans.”

More must-read stories from TIME

write to Megan McCluskey at megan.mccluskey@time.com.


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