Whether you see the New York Times report that conservative activists are combing through journalists’ old tweets, searching for dirt as a threat to the republic or just a reminder that Twitter’s advanced search function exists, Washingtonians, especially journalists, may be wondering today whether they should delete their old tweets.
The case for nuking your timeline is easy to make. Ken Vogel and Jeremy W. Peters’s article tells the stories of Tom Wright-Piersanti and Mohammed Elshamy, Times and CNN journalists, respectively, found themselves on the receiving end of this effort for tweets they wrote when they were younger. Wright-Piersanti apologized and Elshamy apologized and resigned but told the Times that didn’t stop the threats or online harassment. Even after the mean tweets dwindle, right-wing sites are often quite adept at optimizing their stories for search engines, which means Wright-Piersanti and Elshamy, or future employers, may see articles from Breitbart and Fox News near the top of their search results for many years.
Auto-deleters can make the task easier: In an article about Marie Kondoing your tweets, Washington Post reporter Abby Ohlheiser and a few people on my timeline recommended a service called TweetDelete, and of course you have quite a few free and paid options.
You can download your old tweets as an archive if you wish to preserve them for your biographer; just go to your Twitter settings page, click “Account” and then “Your Twitter data.”
Now, the harder question: Should you take an eraser to this part of your digital life? You could argue that tweets are miniature publications and the journalistic thing is to own them and correct anything that’s wrong, but I can think of three very good reasons to take a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser to your timeline:
- You’ve tweeted something really, really stupid
- You’re prone to harassment
- You don’t trust your employer to stand up for you
Let’s take them in order.
Everyone makes mistakes on Twitter. The service is designed to get you to share what’s happening with minimal mediation or second thoughts. Inevitably you’re going to say something you wish you hadn’t. I can’t tell you how relieved I am that Twitter didn’t exist when I was a teenager. The only problem with deleting tweets you regret is that there’s a good chance that won’t kill them dead. The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, for instance, may have snapshots of your Twitter page going back years: Just plug the URL from your Twitter account in the search box here, click a date, and prepare to be horrified. There’s a non-zero chance that your old tweets ended up in the Library of Congress’s collection of every non-deleted tweet between 2010-2017 when it decided to “acquire tweets on a selective basis” instead. Still, just because no security measures will completely foreclose the chances your house will get burgled doesn’t mean you shouldn’t lock and chain your front door.
Harassment: This is pretty obvious. Wesley Lowery, a Washington Post reporter who was once the subject of a moronic Daily Caller “investigation” about his race, wrote on Twitter Sunday “as someone who dealt with this in 2014, I’ll repeat: delete your old tweets, lock down your [Facebook].” There’s no point in linking to this tweet; it will vanish from Lowery’s timeline soon enough. Another idea from the digital media consultant and longtime journalist Heidi N. Moore: Lock your account. If someone shares screenshots of your locked tweets, you can report them to Twitter.
And finally, your employer: Do you have faith that your boss will stand firm in the face of a bad-faith effort to make you into a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the US? Times employees seem like they’ll be okay, but not everyone works for a company that won’t throw them under the wheels the moment things get sticky. If you’re at all in doubt, get to deleting.