When journalists delete tweets, they may be erasing the first draft of history

Last year in an online discussion of what journalism students should know about using social media professionally, one journalist commented: “Delete all your tweets, start fresh, and send every tweet as if it’ll be broadcast on television one day. Make your Instagram private. Seriously. One bad tweet could forever muddy your career as an arbiter of unbiased facts.” 

This conversation, along with other public discussions of deleting tweets, inspired us to examine why and when journalists delete tweets. As part of our ongoing research, we have conducted a small study: We interviewed 17 journalists so far to examine how journalists think about the long term preservation of their tweets.They work in different news outlets and hold various positions. We asked them how frequently they tweet, what kind of content they post, how they acquire their followers, and why and when they delete tweets. 

In March 2019, Tow Center published a report on the limited archiving of digital news. It demonstrated that not only are news organizations choosing not to preserve their digital content, but they are also profoundly unaware of the urgent need for a holistic record of what they produce on external platforms. None of the news workers interviewed for the study reported that their employers were archiving their social media publications, including tweets and posts to Facebook, Instagram, or any other social media platform. 

Journalism as an industry and news organizations as institutions don’t preserve their products, but are journalists as individuals more aware? Or does the fate of journalism as it is published on social media rest in the hands of the company that controls each platform? Are we, as journalists, social scientists, historians, or citizens, ready for the day that Twitter no longer exists?

Journalists expect their subjects to be accountable and transparent, and they commonly call out public figures for deleting embarrassing or discrediting tweets. In June, Twitter issued a new policy: for verified accounts with more than 100,000 followers that represent an elected official or an individual seeking office, the platform will label, but will not delete, tweets that violate their rules. “There are certain cases where it may be in the public’s interest to have access to certain Tweets,” the company wrote. Indeed, compared to other social platforms, Twitter is relatively committed to enabling public discourse and keeping it accessible after it has been publishing. Twitter privacy settings for example, are not as flexible as Facebook or Instagram. “We believe that getting people to feel comfortable talking in public is critical,” said Twitter Product lead Kayvon Beykpour on The Verge’s October 15 podcast.

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All the journalists we talked to delete tweets, although the extent of deletion varies. We identified two major categories among our interviewees: Light deleters and heavy deleters.

 

Light deleters

Light deleters delete tweets very selectively. Examples of light deletions include typos, accidental posting of incorrect information, and unsuccessful jokes.

Most of the light deleters we interviewed said they would not delete all their historical tweets. This group of journalists said they were personally attached to their old tweets. One journalist remembers live-tweeted pictures from a family occasion. She couldn’t bring herself to erase those memories.

Some light deleters mentioned that deleting a tweet could draw a negative reaction, which might have a more significant impact than leaving a controversial tweet published. In another deletion case, the journalist deleted a tweet that drew too much negative attention. The deletion made the original tweet even more viral, as detractors accused her of spreading misleading information and then erasing the evidence.

 

Heavy deleters

Journalists who regularly delete their tweets—more than half of the journalists we spoke to—often use automatic services such as Tweetdelete, Twitwipe,  Tweeteraser, and Tweetdeleter. These services can be set up to erase all historical tweets, and can also  schedule periodic deletions. With these services, heavy deleters create a blank Twitter feed every year, or even every week. All interviewees who reported using these services said that they first learned about them from friends on Twitter. None had checked the company privacy policy or examined what kind of access they were giving the service before signing up to use it.

 

Why delete in bulk? 

The main reason for bulk deletion of tweets was online harassment. All the journalists we interviewed had experienced online attacks, especially female journalists. Some reported that harassment shifted from Twitter to phone calls and threats against other family members.

“You reach a level of visibility where you feel like there are some people who are out to get you,” one journalist said. ”You throw enough punches, you have to take some too.” Another journalist reported that, deleting tweets is a way of preventing others from going through their feed, finding a tweet from three years ago, and retweeting it out of context. “It’s hard to think about preserving your historical record when you are under attack,” they added.

Some journalists reported that they decided to delete their entire feed after changing jobs or while conducting a job search. More than one mentioned the unfortunate case of Sarah Jeong, a journalist: After the New York Times announced Jeong’s appointment to its editorial board, the alt-right used her old tweets to accuse her of being “racist” against white people. Journalists described this incident as an instance when erasing historical tweets would be justified.

The journalists perceive Twitter as a public tool for their own research; but they also feel strongly that their own tweets are not worthy of public preservation. This tension was apparent in all the interviews we conducted. When we confronted them with these questions, we found that few of the interviewees thought of their personal tweets as part of the public record. “You don’t need my tweets from 2010, no one needs them I don’t think,” said one journalist. “I mean, there are certain circumstances where you might want to preserve [tweets]., Like, Donald Trump as a president …you probably want to preserve his tweets because they’re important for the public record, but who the fuck am I?”

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Another interviewee said, “My Twitter feed is the first draft of many stories, kernels of ideas or first impressions, events I report on. I never thought about these tweets as public record when I deleted them because I don’t think that as a journalist I should carry the burden of history on my own.”

Journalists also distinguish between their published stories and their tweets: “A lot of these conversations are meant to be held in the moment, and there’s something nice about like keeping them in the moment,” said one interviewee. “And for me personally, I have plenty of articles and writings that will live on forever.” In other words, published stories are permanent; tweets are ephemeral.

It is important to note, however, that digital news publications are at risk of disappearing as well.

At a deeper level, it’s important to consider that while anyone, supposedly, can have their voice heard on social media, history will still continue to be written by those in power. If the digital conversations of marginalized groups are deleted, what will future historians have access to beyond the perspective of the privileged? Researchers who are relying on social media to study the present or the recent past must remember that what is accessible now may not be tomorrow.

In our conversations with journalists, we realized that the broader problem, beyond the preservation of journalism on Twitter, is a growing dependence on private platforms for public purposes. This is not limited to journalism: private entities that own and distribute cultural products such as movies and music make them supremely accessible in the present, but their permanence is far from certain. Just as libraries still preserve copies of some of these works outside the proprietary walled gardens of digital rights management, perhaps we, as journalists and journalism scholars, should more carefully consider how we treat the first draft of the first draft of history and preserve it for posterity.

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Sharon Ringel and Roei Davidson are based at the University of Haifa, Israel. Ringel (Ph.D., University of Haifa, 2017) is a lecturer at the University of Haifa's department of communication, and a Tow Center for Digital Journalism Research Fellow. Her studies focus on the social aspects of digitization, archives, digital preservation, and cultural memory and digital technologies. Davidson (Ph.D., University of Michigan, 2007) is a senior lecturer in the same department. He studies social aspects of media institutions and technologies including those related to inequality and cultural production.