Remember correction fluid? It had names such as Liquid Paper and Wite-Out.
How about correction tape?
Or, how about those pencil- or wheel-shaped typewriter erasers with a plastic brush at one end? The brush was intended to whisk away bits of worn eraser, which usually landed inside the typewriter anyway.
In the days before digital, these were the tools of reputation management. They were cumbersome, messy, and in the case of correction fluid, toxic; the fumes were as potent as gasoline — and anyone prone to typing errors inhaled a lot of fumes.
They also were imperfect at covering imperfections. Shrewd hiring managers held résumés and cover letters up to the light to find the telltale blotches and smudges left by correction fluid. Minus those, an applicant could land the job on perfect typing alone.
Today, we depend on the Delete or Backspace keys to correct mistakes and believe nobody is wise to our errors when they vanish off the screen before our eyes. In truth, the ghosts of our gaffes cling to the Web and leave telltale traces, much like correction fluid.
Nowhere is this more obvious than social media, especially Twitter, where bits of conversations spin off and tumble around inside the platform like socks in a Laundromat dryer. One phrase or image may be plucked out of context and hurled perhaps too far to see where it came from but not far enough to forget. And if that phrase or image is tasteless or inaccurate — well, imagine what happens when one red sock gets mixed in with a load of white laundry.
The solution, many journalists believe, is to delete the offending or inaccurate tweet, also known as scrubbing, but as recent examples suggest that only makes the problem worse.
Bloomberg Politics got caught up in a vicious spin cycle last month when it tweeted about an interview with White House chef Sam Kass about the Obamas’ family dining and paired a portrait of the president with what appears to be a stock image of chicken wings, thus stirring claims of racial stereotyping. The tweet came down without apology but not before thousands saw it and hundreds retweeted it.
The same week, CNN was hit by a tweetstorm after a staffer posted a photo of the network’s morning anchor team apparently making fun of the Ebola scare. The photo was even retweeted by a member of the anchor team before a CNN executive demanded it come down.
The following week, a national correspondent for CBS News suffered embarrassment over her reporting about U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s criticism of federal reaction to Ebola. Amid the dialog, she asserted that Paul lacked the medical wisdom to be objective on the matter. Paul has held a medical license in his home state of Kentucky since 1993, a fact that appears even on Wikipedia. Yet she pulled down the tweet instead of correcting the record.
In each case, the deletion had an impact opposite of what was intended. And not just these three; examples abound of media, celebrities, and politicians smearing their messes over a wider area merely by deleting an errant or inappropriate tweet.
The better strategy? Leave the tweet alone and post a follow-up containing a correction or an apology if necessary. Here’s why:
It minimizes confusion — Retweets, no matter their number, trace back to their origins, and having a string of retweets linked to a blank space in the Twitter time stream can confuse readers who are following the story or merely trying to corroborate information posted by other journalists and readers.
It maximizes credibility — Wherever a gap exists in the Twitter time stream, other Twitter users fill it with conjecture and assumption. Admitting a mistake or issuing an apology not only prevents speculation from seeping into the conversation, it also demonstrates responsibility on the part of the Twitter user and responsible users are considered credible sources.
You can’t change the past — Once a tweet goes live, it never really dies. The Library of Congress signed a deal with Twitter in 2010 to sweep up all Tweets for posterity and now keeps them in a sprawling searchable database.
Typewriters compelled users to think twice before hitting the keys to avoid cumbersome corrections. Treating Twitter with the same respect yields the same result.