Exclusive: Twitter working on “edit” feature for tweets

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Twitter is working on a new feature that would allow users to edit tweets once they are published, three sources close to the project have confirmed to The Desk.

Those sources, who asked to be identified only as Twitter employees, say the feature has been a top priority at the company for months as Twitter pushes to expand partnerships among media organizations and original content producers.

"Larry," the Twitter bird. (Photo: Twitter press kit)

“Larry,” the Twitter bird. (Photo: Twitter press kit)

According to sources and documents reviewed by The Desk, the new Twitter feature would look something like this:

Once a user publishes a tweet, an “edit” feature will be present for a limited amount of time (Twitter is still currently working out the length of time the feature would be available). The feature would allow a user to make “slight changes” to the contents of a tweet, such a removing a word, correcting a typo or adding one or two additional words.

An edit could only be performed once per tweet. Once the edit is made, it would be immediately visible on that user’s Twitter feed. The edit would also show up on the feed of anyone who re-published the tweet using Twitter’s built-in “re-tweet” feature.

Twitter wants to enable users to immediately debunk incorrect information, especially erroneous tweets that go viral. However, Twitter wants users to be able to edit a tweet without changing the overall purpose — in other words, Twitter doesn’t want a user to post a news story, accumulate a large amount of re-tweets, and then change the tweet to display a promotion or advertisement.

To solve this problem, Twitter is looking at a few things, including limitations on how many characters or words a user would be allowed to insert or delete. According to sources, Twitter is also developing an “editorial algorithm” that, if it works correctly, would be able to “detect” whether or not a user is attempting to change the overall intention of the tweet instead of fixing a minor mistake or retracting an erroneous report.

Sources say Twitter’s editorial algorithm, still being developed, is projected to be finished in a matter of “weeks, or months at the most.”

Once Twitter feels it has a solid “edit” feature, it will begin making it available to a select few — likely verified news organizations, celebrities and public officials — for testing. In the past, Twitter has reached out to select “partners” to help test secret features that have yet to be made public, such as expedited Twitter support and fast account switching from a single login.

Sources acknowledge that an “edit” feature would not be a perfect fix. As it is designed now, the feature wouldn’t benefit those who “manually re-tweet” a message. It also would not display whether or not a tweet has been “edited,” although that may be built in later. And even advanced algorithms — sources say its algorithm will be “one of the most-advanced in the industry” — are still prone to error.

But the feature, if it is ever rolled out, would almost certainly be a welcome addition by news organizations and power users. Conversations about how misinformation can spread on Twitter started in early 2011 when National Public Radio erroneously reported on Twitter that former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords had died from a gunshot wound to the head. The report, which NPR cited to law enforcement sources, was repeated by other news organizations, including television stations that had been reporting from the scene of the crime in Tucson, Arizona that day.

The incident, which was corrected and profusely apologized for, was something of a case study at the time at how quickly bad information can spread on social media platforms. Despite the conversation, there have been more instances of erroneous reports going viral — and a good amount of it can be attributed to Twitter’s users.

In April, Wired’s Mat Honan called the absence of an edit feature the “one function that Twitter desperately needs,” drawing upon his own experience of having contributed to the spread of misinformation during this year’s Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent manhunt for the suspects. Right after Honan published his article, the Syrian Electronic Army compromised the main Twitter account used by the Associated Press to publish a tweet that caused the Dow Jones index to drop by 100 points.

The company isn’t blind to the fact that its platform contributes to misinformation. Though the company has not publicly addressed any chance of rolling out a “correction” feature, sources at Twitter say its been a top priority internally — and even moreso since the company went public last month.

A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment on the feature when reached by The Desk early Monday morning.