News & Politics

Journalism Org Sends Out Tutorial Explaining How to Delete Offensive Tweets

The New York Times is under fire for the newspaper of record’s decision to stick with newly hired tech writer Sarah Jeong after a cache of racist comments was discovered in her Twitter feed. Now Poynter, an institute that teaches and supports journalists, is working overtime to help media types cover their tracks on social media, sending out a pair of emails on Monday warning about the “dire” consequences of not deleting tweets that could come back to haunt them.

“Twitter just ain’t like it used to be,” Poynter’s Ren LaForme wrote in an email to journalists on Monday. “When the social media platform launched 12 years ago, it was more of a mundane check-in service,” he said. “It quickly morphed into a place where snark was king and off-color was the language du jour. Rolling through the mean tweets of 2008 through 2015 or so was an invitation to criticize and be criticized, often in the starkest terms possible.”

The email noted that the “tone and topics” have changed over the years, “but for many of us, those old tweets remain.”

Indeed they do. The list of blue checks who have been burned by their Twitter history is long — and very revealing.

Citing the controversy over Jeong’s “wry” tweets, LaForme explained that old tweets can be “jarring in a modern context.”

Here are some examples of what Poynter considers to be “wry” tweets:

Where I come from those tweets are “racist,” not “wry,” but I digress. Poynter doesn’t explain why the racial slurs are only “jarring in a modern context.” They were just as jarring (and racist) in 2014 as they are today, it’s just that they went unnoticed until the former Verge writer was hired by the Times.

“We’ve all tweeted dumb stuff,” wrote LaForme. “My very first tweet was, ‘Trying to figure out a way to utilize twitter…,’ a sentence that no doubt caused Strunk and White to red-pen the tops of their graves. That tweet remains, but others are long gone.” He then goes on to explain the process for deleting racist wry tweets:

If you’d like to keep your Twitter history and only remove your most offensive tweets, turn to Twitter Advanced Search. It allows you to search for specific words or phrases.

I modified a list similar to this one (warning: loads of vulgarity) to also include terms that have become politicized over the past decade. Then I pasted it into the “Any of these words” section of advanced search (I had to cut the list into three searches because it seems like there’s a word limit), added my username to the “From these accounts” section and went on a deleting spree (to delete a tweet, click the downward-facing arrow on the top right corner of a tweet and select “Delete Tweet” on the dropdown).

“Presto,” says LaForme, “a cleaner history.”

Down the memory hole your tweets go! Even the doubleplusracist ones!

LaForme admits that it “only feels slightly Orwellian.”

In another Poynter email to journalists on Monday, David Beard shares the story of journalist Joel Mathis, who apparently dodged a bullet by deleting tweets just before the NYT scandal broke.

“Mathis says the hunt for ill-thought tweets could capture journalists whose earlier workplaces may have encouraged a sassier style than that of the more mainstream publications to which these journalists gravitated,” Beard warned.

Wry? Sassier? Orwell would be proud.*

In a dramatic flourish of newspeak, LaForme, in his newsletter, recommends the “nuclear option” for journos whose Twitter feeds are “a bit messier.” “It might make sense to flush the whole thing down the memory hole blast the whole thing to oblivion and start fresh,” he said. He recommends a tool like TweetDelete, adding that it’s advisable to save a copy of your archive before you delete your account.

“But I can only recommend deleting all of your tweets if your timeline is extremely dire [there he goes again],” said LaForme. “For better or worse, a user’s tweet count lends a bit of authority on Twitter. It’s usually worth the time to go through and pluck out the weeds rather than tilling the whole garden.”

“Whether you’re deleting a handful of unwise tweets or smashing the lot of them, note that you’re not entirely in the clear. Your tweets might live on in archive tools, screengrabs or even just the minds of the people who saw them,” his email warns. “It’s a good reminder that you are what you tweet.”

Indeed, as many people have learned the hard way over the last few years, the internet is forever.

*New additions to the Newspeak Dictionary

Wry — Adjective. Using or expressing dry, especially mocking, racism toward white people and conservatives.

Sassy — Adjective. Lively, bold, full of spirit and cheeky racism.

“Blast the whole thing to oblivion” — Phrase. Digital version of the memory hole.

Dire — Adjective. (of a warning or threat) presaging revelations of past racist tweets.

Jarring — Adjective. Hypocritical in a striking or racist way; clashing.


An earlier version of this article mistakenly attributed the quote about deleting all your tweets to David Beard, when it was, in fact, written by Ren LaForme. It has been corrected to include the correct attribution.