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Summary:

Whenever a breaking news event leads to errors on Twitter, critics suggest that the service needs some kind of built in correction or editing mechanism — but adding one would not only be complicated, it would also be unwise.

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Every time a breaking news event like the Boston bombings occurs and Twitter becomes a hot mess of real-time news reports, hoaxes, fake accounts and misinformation, there is a great hue and cry for some kind of correction mechanism or editing ability for incorrect tweets — and a tool with the somewhat cringe-worthy name Retwact has been the latest beneficiary of that impulse. But even if we could design such a thing and make it work, is that really what Twitter needs? As appealing as the idea might seem, I don’t think it is.

Retwact — whose full name is Retweet Retraction — is the brainchild of a programmer named Stonly Baptiste, a developer in Pennsylvania. In a nutshell, the service archives your incorrect tweet with a correction or apology of your choosing, then shoots a link out to all of your followers to try and encourage them to read the corrected version. In addition, it also sends an @ mention and link out to the first 100 people who retweeted your original incorrect message, in the hope that they might also help spread the correction.

Correcting tweets would be complicated

As it turns out, this latter feature appears to have run afoul of Twitter’s terms of service, which are designed to prevent spam accounts, and Retwact’s account was suspended on Thursday. Baptiste says that he plans to go ahead with the other features regardless, and may even make his project — which received a lot of support on Y Combinator’s Hacker News forum — open source.

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The impulse behind a tool like Retwact is an obvious one: as Wired writer Mat Honan notes, there is a sinking feeling whenever you tweet or retweet something that is incorrect (or turns out to be incorrect), and it would be nice to be able to retract or remove not just that tweet but all the subsequent retweets of it as well, to clear up the public record. Honan joins a growing chorus of critics asking for a correction mechanism (or trying to design one, as some members of this post-Boston Branch discussion did).

Adding that kind of editing or retraction/clarification ability seems to be something that is within Twitter’s grasp: in the same way that it has built hooks into Twitter’s code so that media companies can embed video clips and other data within its “Cards” or expanded tweet feature, it would theoretically be possible for Twitter to add a hook that would connect a mistaken tweet with its subsequent corrected version, so that both would follow each other around the social web.

As Twitter engineer Nick Kallen has explained, however, the likelihood of Twitter actually building in this feature seems somewhere between slim and nil — in part because they driving force behind most of the company’s changes over the past year or so (with the exception of expanded tweets) has been to strip functionality and features away rather than to add them. An editing or correction function could also theoretically be abused in a number of ways.

Twitter is a real-time stream

But more than that, I think Kallen puts his finger on the problem when he says that adding correction features would change the nature of what Twitter is in a fairly fundamental way. The whole point of the service is that it is a stream of content that never stops — and the only way to correct a tweet is to send out another one. In that sense, it mimics conversation, which is also inherently un-correctable except through more conversation. It may be flawed and messy, but that’s the way information works now, for better or worse.

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And yes, this has obvious flaws, because the correction never travels quite as far as the original mistake (as Craig Silverman of Regret The Error has pointed out). But over time, I firmly believe that Twitter becomes what Sasha-Frere Jones of the New Yorker called a “self-cleaning oven” for news.

On top of that, I don’t think adding an editing or correction function like Retwact would actually help all that much. People would continue to believe whatever they want to believe — as wrong as that might be — and no matter how thorough the mechanism was, it wouldn’t stop those who created their own manual retweets or retweets of retweets. I also think that having errors emerge and get stamped out over time is a positive process that creates more skepticism about real-time news, something that we need to encourage. It is a process, not a finished product.

So as much as I cringe internally whenever I send out a mistake — which I have done, and will no doubt continue to do — I hope Twitter ignores the requests of its critics to implement an official editing or correction function.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Hirurg

  1. Agreed, especially on the real-time nature of the medium and its self-cleaning feature. The only way to build an audience and a reputation for quality content and integrity is to provide quality content and act with integrity. There’s no quick way to do that, but it applies to more than just Twitter.

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    1. Great point, Sol — thanks for the comment.

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  2. I wish Twitter would let us edit our tweets.

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  3. If you tweet a mistake you tweet a redaction. While I prefer not to, you can also delete the original tweet. Editing tweets is a slippery slope which will make journalist think they are free to be even less sure about the validity of the info they tweet,instead just sweeping in under the rug when it happens, claiming they didn’t change their tweet etc. etc.

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    1. Dave Griffiths Friday, May 3, 2013

      An edit button would be best, if the tweet was then displayed with an edited icon. As long as you can click on the ‘edited’ icon and see all edits made to the tweet (just as you can see all edits to Wikipedia pages, for instances), there isn’t too much potential for people to hide what they originally said.

      The ability to address typos is needed. The ability to do this without allowing people to disguise what they originally tweeted isn’t too difficult to achieve.

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      1. I don’t think that’s needed at all. Is it such a tragedy that you made a typo? If it bothers you that much, just delete the tweet and post it again without the typo. This just overcomplicates the simplicity of twitter. 140 characters, post it, done.

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  4. I work for a law enforcement agency and we have been considering this problem, though from a different angle, for some time.

    SCENARIO: We tweet that a child has gone missing (probably just run away). That receives hundreds of retweets. The child is found. We tweet they have been found – that receives tens of retweets (if that). Some of the “no-longer-true” rumours abound for weeks after the case was closed – embarrassing both the child (who continues to be approached and asked if they are missing) and us.

    ANOTHER SCENARIO: We ask the public’s help in identifying a suspect for a criminal case. We identify the individual, the case goes to court and the court expects us to have removed every mention of the case from the internet – so we don’t prejudice the trial.

    Obviously, in both these scenarios we can delete the original message (assuming we originally posted it). We have also (in a missing child case) sent correction messages to everyone that retweeted a message (that was a mad 6 hours I can tell you!), but I have to say there must be a better way…

    On media we control (specifically our website) we now correct the original news article – so anyone clicking the link from the original tweet will see that the story has been updated. The issue we are struggling with now is that the twitter cards/expanded tweets don’t update – they scrape the story on upload, and that is it. While I probably disagree with correcting a whole tweet, I don’t think that it would be too much extra work to re-scrape the news story every hour, or even every day – assuming it has been retweeted (i.e. not every link ever, just the ones that are still being shared).

    I’d love to know if someone more technical than me knows if this would be possible, and if anyone has any suggestions on how to suggest to twitter that they adopt it!

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