Should anyone sift through old tweets?

Remember the tweet you thought was hilarious, but that would now land you in hot water? Yeah, you know which one. But should it even get you in trouble?

What is Twitter?

Twitter is by far the most spontaneous of all social media sites. Twitter’s timeline is great for reactions, quotes, and gives a lot of visibility for a briefly worded thought. Facebook encourages interactions between friends and sometimes even large comment sections, while Instagram wants to only give you brief visual impressions. Snapchat (as much as it’s still in use) is more of a personal contact tool than a portal to the outside world. When it comes to getting out of your bubble, Twitter remains arguably the best tool for doing so, even if the introduction of certain algorithms have begun to mimic Facebook’s model.

Why do people tweet? There are three observable reasons: A) you use it as a tool for mere observation or support of a particular person, group, or idea; B) you have a base and want to sustain that base; or C) you want to expand your reach.

The first group will only tweet controversial things out of frustration or anger. The second group will tweet something controversial if it is part of their brand (a provocateur or comedian, for instance). The third group pushes itself more often towards “edgy” comments, because only a viral tweet will gain a lot of followers. Internet denizens are well aware that positive messages rarely attract the most attention. We can’t all be Ellen.

So you tweeted something stupid

By this time, you might be wondering whether you tweeted something six years ago that could get you fired. If it’s not an original tweet, it might be the result of a Twitter fight. Alternatively, it might just be that what you wrote simply did not seem so reprehensible six years ago. What is and isn’t offensive changes rapidly these days.

Curating your news feed is not necessarily a bad idea. You also manage embarrassing party pictures on Facebook (although they seemed like a brilliant idea back when they were posted) or even your resume. The fact that you were class representative in high school makes sense on your CV when you’re applying for an internship, but by the age of 50 would seem rather silly. In the same way, your “women can’t drive, man” tweet at 2:35 AM won’t prevent you from landing a job as a stand-up comic (comedian Sarah Silverman thinks that those in her profession shouldn’t be judged on old tweets), but would be ill-advised if you’re trying to nail that Google interview. You tailor your message like you tailor your clothes.

The “gotcha” moment

Today, no interview on the topic of politics goes by without a “but you tweeted XYZ ten years ago” moment. It happens on both sides of the political aisle, on every network, and in every paper, whether it’s Trump tweeting that President Obama golfs too much or Kamala Harris calling out the “modern-day lynching” of Jussie Smollett.

In Australia, politicians running in the federal election began deleting their old tweets while the transparency group Open State Foundation was frantically making a deal with Twitter to back up all content before it could be erased.

Should politicians be held accountable for a tweet dating back to the recent past? Certainly. Should they be made fun of for outlandish predictions that have been proved to be incorrect? Evidently.

What about the more distant past? Should every tweet that could be interpreted as offensive or problematic really be a deciding factor in major news coverage? Should “Twitter finds old tweet” be a frequent headline? The answer to these questions is difficult to assert; however, if it is yes, one must acknowledge that there will be unintended consequences. With a political and business landscape said to be filled with humourless figures, we would raise a generation of career hopefuls who are incentivized to be as sterile as possible. The further we push the limit of what counts as an acceptable statement, the more lifeless our timelines become. Without experiencing the flow of information, we cannot determine what does, indeed, overstep the boundary of good humour and into the realm of provocation. We end up getting professional provocateurs in the style of Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens who “own the libs” by being outrageous.

We need to apply context to every statement and also to understand that Twitter is a tool different from holding a full-on press conference. In fact, the Trump phenomenon has done just that on a diplomatic level: were international leaders to take the President’s tweets at face value, the United States would undoubtedly be at war.

Twitter generates thought, sparking reactions and discussions. If, going forward, we treat its content as though it were carved in stone, we’ll wind up taking ourselves and others too seriously.

This article was first published by Values4Europe.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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