Why Twitter resists a correction function & why it should build one anyway

It’s a question that pops up every once in a while among journalists and others: What would a useful Twitter correction tool look like?

Here at Poynter, we hosted two online chats about a Twitter correction tool a little more than a year ago. The first looked at ways journalists handle erroneous tweets, and the second examined how a Twitter correction tool/feature might work. In advance of these chats, we encouraged people to weigh in with their suggestions on Quora. I also suggested a Twitter correction feature in a previous column for Columbia Journalism Review.

Twitter has thus far been silent on the topic of corrections. None of the big Twitter apps like HootSuite or Tweetbot or the company’s own TweetDeck offer any kind of correction functionality, either. But that hasn’t stopped people from trying to come up with the right way to correct a tweet.

The latest suggestion comes from Oliver Reichenstein, a designer with Information Architects. His idea is to enable users to strikethrough the text of a mistaken tweet rather than delete it. (Canadian journalist Chris Boutet made a similar suggestion in the Quora discussion.)

I like the fact that Reichenstein’s thinking emphasizes the need to communicate about a mistake and offer context, rather than just delete it:

A missing tweet also doesn’t explain why it’s missing. Excuses might be posted after the mistake happened — but they might also never be seen. The only format that clearly states a mistake is a fat strike through. It is a strong answer to any interpretations and accusations that follow. It clearly says: “Don’t read this. This is all wrong. I take it back. I’m sorry.” Deleted tweets don’t say that — they smell like a cover-up and often make you look suspicious. And apologetic follow-up tweets don’t have the power to neutralize that screenshot of you screwing up.

He suggests the addition of a feature that offers users a “Mark as error” strikethrough option when they click to delete a tweet. First you get this menu:

And if you select “Mark as error,” this is what happens to your tweet:

Good for the network

This proposal elicited reaction from Twitter’s creative director, Doug Bowman. So we get a sense of how at least one person at the company views the idea:

And:

Bowman has concerns about the complexity of the feature, and he raised the point that this is a niche need and therefore hard for the company to put resources into. The former point suggests we still need to refine a correction concept to come up with something easier and more obvious for users.

His second point — that a small subsection of the user base would need this — strikes me as something of a chicken-and-egg problem in that the only way for a correction feature to gain widespread use is for Twitter to get behind it and invest time and resources in development and promotion.

Twitter should seriously consider doing this because over time this initiative will increase the quality of information on its network. That’s of important value to the company and its total user base.

Yes, journalists and designers are the ones who keep talking about Twitter corrections publicly, and they are a subset of Twitter users, albeit an influential one. But everyone who uses Twitter makes mistakes. We also know that people on Twitter can suddenly and surprisingly be transformed into important sources of news based on where they happen to be at a moment in time.

Twitter should help spread the ethic of correction to as many people as possible, and give them simple tools that help stop the spread of misinformation or inaccuracies.

Twitter can help its users by finding a better way to blunt the flow of inaccurate information, while still keeping users in charge of what they tweet. It’s good for the network and for everyone who relies on it.

Journalists react

But back to those pesky journalists. Journalism.co.uk gathered some feedback about the proposed feature by contacting three editors with large news organizations. (Mashable took a similar approach.) Markham Nolan of Storyful raised a couple of interesting points:

Will people be willing to publicly admit that they got things wrong and leave their errors hanging there in perpetuity for all to see, when they can simply delete the tweet, apologise and be done with it?

In any case, as Twitter users become more savvy, the shelf-life of an erroneous tweet is getting shorter and shorter.

The crowd is more skeptical than ever, and quicker to squash hoaxes as a result, meaning a development like this would likely have pretty limited utility.

The challenge of driving adoption is indeed key, and I think it speaks to some of the concerns raised by Twitter’s Doug Bowman.

For me, the best part of this idea, as noted above, is it could help stem the flow of incorrect information. People are much less likely to retweet something that has been struck through, and it may in fact cause them to investigate further in order to understand why something has been marked as an error. That process improves information literacy, something smart Twitter use requires.

Hat tip to the Verge

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  • http://twitter.com/dancow Dan Nguyen

    Kind of rebutted your own position there. You think that this will happen: 
    “…someone who regularly tweets and then strikes-through will have low credibility.”

    When there is no incentive for such a person to not simply be:
    “someone who regularly tweets”

    The Twitter director is correct on this. This is only something journalists would care about and most journalists who need it wouldn’t use it anyway.

  • http://twitter.com/fuzzleonard Fuzz Leonard

    I don’t see it and, in fact, believe the opposite more likely: someone who regularly tweets and then strikes-through will have low credibility. As this data would be available through the Twitter API it would be trivial to make tools that rate journalists (and others) on the amount of striking-through that they do. I follow a person on Twitter who gets trigger-happy and regularly tweets sensational stuff from earlier in the day that has already been debunked. I like him, but at this point when he tweets something interesting my first reaction is disbelief and additional research.

  • http://twitter.com/maartencorten Maarten Corten

    This is why I’m against a correction tool: it makes every tweet conditional, unless it’s corrected. Let me clarify. A correction mechanism would encourage journalists to, even more so than already is the case, publish unchecked tweets, simply because they can correct them later on if needed. This way you can only be certain a tweet is false when it’s striked through, but you can never be sure it’s true. You can simply hope it’s not going to be striked through in the future. So apart from various ways to verify the credibility of an account or a tweet, a correction mechanism would lower the credibility of the tweeting format itself by encouraging sloppy tweeting (or what people eufismistically like to call process journalism). And that would be a shame.

  • http://twitter.com/scottleadingham Scott Leadingham

    I promise it was my own thought (without having read your CJR piece). Great minds think alike, or something like that.

  • http://www.CraigSilverman.ca CraigSilverman

    Your suggestion is actually pretty similar to what I proposed for a Twitter correction function in a CJR column a little while back: http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/to_delete_or_not_to_delete.php?page=all

    So, yeah, I like it!

  • http://twitter.com/scottleadingham Scott Leadingham

    I like the idea of the strike-through, but I would like more (and if strike-through is too much for Twitter folks, then this would probably be WAY too much): My beef is how fleeting tweets are. We know the time-value of a tweet is relatively short. Same thing with a correction or follow-up tweet correcting any erroneous information. Those who were affected/influenced/helped spread the bad information likely won’t see the correction. So, if a tweet is corrected/struck, there should be an automatic notification to anyone who retweeted the initially erroneous information … and so on down the line. This wouldn’t be perfect, of course, but it’d be a lot better than hoping the correction spreads as organically or virally as the initial information. Of course, I know this is probably a far-off notion. But a guy can hope, right?