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Is adding an edit button on Twitter a good thing?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Elon Musk spent much of his weekend tweeting criticism and jokes about Twitter, where he recently became the biggest shareholder. But after news broke out that the billionaire had turned down a board seat at the company, Musk deleted many of those tweets. Though, what if he could edit his tweets instead? Soon, he may get that chance. NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond has more.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: For years, Twitter users have asked for one feature above all others - an edit button. Kim Kardashian wants it. So does fast-food giant McDonald's. Tech journalist Casey Newton says, it's just common sense to let people change a tweet instead of deleting it.

CASEY NEWTON: Basically, every other text-based platform on the internet lets you fix a mistake, right? Whether it's Reddit or Facebook or Tumblr or an Instagram comment, if you make a mistake, you can get in there and fix it.

BOND: But Twitter has always resisted. Here's co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey doing a Q&A a few years ago.

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JACK DORSEY: I own Twitter. Can we get that edit button in 2020? The answer is no.

BOND: He said editing could be abused. But now things are changing. Dorsey is no longer CEO. Elon Musk is Twitter's largest investor and a very outspoken critic. He's polled his 81 million followers about whether there should be an edit button. And Twitter says it's listening, but the ability to change tweets could change the way people use Twitter. Engineer Leslie Miley has worked at Twitter, Apple, Google and Slack.

LESLIE MILEY: You know, Twitter has put itself out there as a source of information, as a source of reliable information.

BOND: For power users - journalists, politicians, celebrities - Twitter functions as a real-time newswire where tweets are part of the public record. Just look at how former President Donald Trump used it to broadcast his thoughts and even set policy. Miley started a product team at Twitter to combat abuse and harassment. He says there's a risk an edit button could be weaponized to deceive or manipulate.

MILEY: From gaslighting people, you know, to say, well, this is what you said, and then they change the tweets - they're like, this is not what I said - all the way to someone posting something out there that is categorically false but starts a shooting war somewhere and then removing that and say, yeah, that never happened.

BOND: Skeptics also worry editing could exacerbate Twitter's existing safety problems if even a small number of bad actors misuse the feature. Tracy Chou's experience of online abuse led her to found Block Party, a company that automatically mutes harassers on social media. And she says an edit button is a bad idea. People who post threats could change their tweets to try to hide what they've done.

TRACY CHOU: It makes it a lot more difficult for the victims to, like, collect that evidence, potentially, like, flag it to the platforms or law enforcement to take action.

BOND: And she says it could make the platform more confusing.

CHOU: There is this beauty in the simplicity of Twitter and the way that it works now, where you just kind of know that things won't change. So things are as they are or they're deleted, and that's it.

BOND: Both Chou and Miley acknowledge it all comes down to how Twitter designs its edit button. Facebook lets people edit posts and shows users what was changed and when. Twitter could limit how many changes are allowed or how much time people have to edit tweets. Newton, the tech journalist, says most people just want to correct errors rather than wreak havoc. For him, it's as simple as fixing a typo, like when he accidentally described an iPad as a phone.

NEWTON: Most people don't care. But, like, I am a writer, and I am precious about my language, and I would like to change the word phones to devices. And no one would suffer. But my tweets would look a little bit better. And wouldn't that be nice, you know?

BOND: He says it's about designing software in a way that acknowledges people make mistakes. Twitter says it plans to start testing the edit button soon for members of its $3 a month subscription service. Shannon Bond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.