Your retweets ARE endorsements, unless…

Delhi Police’s DCP (Deputy Commissioner of Police) KPS Malhotra (who was awarded the Union Home Minister’s Medal for Excellence in Investigation 2021), who is now part of the Intelligence Fusion and Strategic Operations (IFSO) unit within Delhi Police, was recently quoted saying this: “If you endorse a view on social media, it becomes your view. Retweeting & saying I don’t know, doesn’t stand here. Responsibility is yours. Time does not matter, you only have to re-tweet & it becomes new”.

He said this in connection with the arrest of AltNews co-founder Mohammed Zubair.

One part of the DCP’s quip seems accurate, while another part doesn’t seem to be.

The part he may be incorrect about is regarding “time does not matter”. Section 468 in The Code Of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) has a specific point called ‘Period of limitation‘. Here’s what it says:

If you remember, Zubair’s supposedly “offensive” tweet was from 2018.

But this post is not about what DCP Malhotra is possibly incorrect about. This is about where he is most likely correct, and what mainly caused much debate and consternation online after his quip was reported by ANI.

“If you endorse a view on social media, it becomes your view. Retweeting & saying I don’t know, doesn’t stand here. Responsibility is yours.”

The most common reaction to this was, “Oh, so ‘RTs are not endorsements’ as a disclaimer on the bio doesn’t hold, is it?“.

Yes, it doesn’t. At all.

To make it clearer: Retweets ARE endorsements.

But to understand why they are endorsements, we need to understand who first stated this disclaimer and why.

The first person to ever come up with this statement as a disclaimer was either Patrick LaForge, who is currently the editor, Breaking News Hub at The New York Times, or Brian Stelter, who is currently CNN’s chief media correspondent.

It was in the August 2009 period that one of them (or both, at the same time) updated their bio to reflect that now-iconic phrase.

When Patrick added that phrase to his bio, he was an editor for the New York Times’ City Room blog. When Brian added that phrase to his bio, he was a reporter at The New York Times.

Both added that phrase to not just imply retweets, but also, more importantly, “links”; meaning that the links they tweeted out (that were not from The New York Times and were just about anywhere on the internet) are not being endorsed by them.

So the actual phrase read, “Links and retweets of non-NYT content are not endorsements. Caveat lector”, in Patrick’s case, and “Retweets & links are not endorsements”, in Brian’s case.

Patrick’s earlier phrase simply read, “A link is not an endorsement”, and this he updated to add ‘retweets’ too, eventually.

What prompted them to add this phrase?

‘Retweet’, as a Twitter function, was gaining traction at that point. But the specific reason for the phrase’s need, at that point, was probably to do with the manual retweeting technique of copying-pasting the original tweet and adding an RT in the beginning. Given the already limited character count (just 140 characters, till Twitter updated it to 280, in November 2017), it was difficult to add any other context to a manual RT. Threads were also non-existent back then.

So, when you RT someone else’s tweet, with any context or additions of your own, it did look like you are endorsing what you are RT’ing!

The disclaimer was perhaps intended to address a tool-level constraint that forced a lack of context or addition.

Twitter realized this and first announced that they are working on a retweet button in August 2009, and rolled it out as a test feature in November 2009.

(It’s a different story that the man who invented that button at Twitter, Chris Wetherell, regrets the button’s creation saying, “We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon“.)

Eventually, in April 2015, Twitter launched the ‘retweet with comment’ feature to address this precise problem.

Now, consider the retweet function the way it exists currently.

You see a tweet. You click retweet and do so without any additional comment.

In the real world, a tweet would look like this: someone writes their opinion on something on a piece of paper and holds it in front of them for the world to see, and stands in the middle of a busy road. Everyone who passes by can see what they think, by reading that piece of paper they are holding.

A retweet would then look like this: you see that person’s tweet (hand-written note), copy it on a piece of paper on your own along with their name and Twitter handle, and stand on another busy road holding your copied note. People who pass by you can see that you are holding an opinion that clearly calls out the author as someone else, but you are holding it. And you are not saying anything at all about it – you are just holding it for the world to see.

If you observe this from the perspective of the people who are walking past you, they would first wonder if what you are holding is something that you believe in, or agree with too. Else, why would you be holding it anyway? In other words, what made you consider holding that note that clearly is someone else’s opinion? You haven’t answered that point, have you? If you had, that would be a quote-tweet, not just a retweet.

So, the kind of impression you give while retweeting is ambiguous enough for people to not get why you are retweeting it. That ambiguity gives rise to questions that you haven’t answered proactively or would be forced to answer if enough people ask you.

So, can you get away with ‘no comment’ or ‘without comment’ as your point of view (as a quote tweet) if you have nothing to add over a tweet that you are retweeting?

Not really. A ‘no comment’ or ‘without comment’ is ambiguous too. You could not have any comment to make either because you totally agree with it (and have nothing more to add), or because you do not agree with the sentiment expressed and the ‘no comment’ is a sign of shaking your head in shock/surprise/disapproval. The point is that these are open to interpretations.

Legally too, it is better to use the framework applied for social media endorsements, both by FTC in the US, and by ASCI in India. They insist that necessary disclosures be added (when you are sharing something that has a monetary/non-monetary benefit for you; without which you may not have written that at all) in the actual post and not just in your bio.

If you apply that principle, it means that having a blanket ‘RTs are not endorsements’ at the bio level is not going to prevent people from knowing that! It would amount to you adding that disclaimer in every single retweet.

Or, consider another perspective: imagine you see someone tweeting with foul/abusive language (for whatever reason). You are tempted to retweet it. What would your followers think when they see you retweet (and not quote-tweet) an abusive tweet? Do you endorse that language? Or, are you horrified by the kind of language used? Can it even be deciphered from your retweet? It is ambiguous. That’s the precise problem.

These are problems that stem from the way Twitter is constructed. You see individual tweets removed from the bio, on your own timeline. That’s very different from going to a person’s Twitter page and start seeing from the top (the bio) and then the last few tweets. That removes context across multiple levels and layers. But this is also a problem that we have come to live with and work around.

So the next time you are tempted to retweet someone, please question yourself what your view about that tweet is. Because the people who will see that retweet will wonder why you shared it. You may be thinking in your head, “I shared it because I want more people to see it“. Fair enough. But why do you want more people to see it? Because it is… what? That context and your own intent are missing in a plain retweet.

Do you agree with that sentiment? Please go ahead and retweet without any quote addition from you. In other words, use the default retweet option ONLY if you agree with the tweet and are willing to endorse it. Because, if you do not endorse it, then that tweet has no business being a part of *your* timeline.

Do you disagree with the tweet? Use the quote-tweet option and add clearly that you disagree. You don’t necessarily need to add a reason; you could perhaps leave that to someone asking you and then deciding to respond to that. Or, at least use emojis that are reasonably easy to decipher.

But emojis are beyond the point with a tweet that you clearly disagree with or one that you would be ashamed to share with your parents/spouse/son/daughter. That’s my broader yardstick for sharing anything on social media – would I not want my parents/spouse/children to see a tweet from me? Then I wouldn’t share that at all on Twitter. But, I’m human too, and sometimes, I may have not thought through something I share on Twitter – but, by and large, I try to consciously stick to this basic rule.

Do you have a counterpoint to the tweet you want to retweet? Use the quote-tweet and add the point.

Remember – if you add nothing from your side, it would be presumed that you endorse the tweet you are retweeting. Don’t imagine that the people who read your retweet of someone else’s tweet know you well enough to understand your intent. They do not. Start with that premise.

You could also ask: what about Likes on Twitter? Are they endorsements too? After all, people use Like almost like a read-later feature and very unlike a ‘Like’, right?

For ‘Likes’ on Twitter, consider a basic fact: your Likes can be seen publicly. They are not private. So the same basic rule applies. Other people cannot decipher why you Liked a tweet. They can only guess but it would remain ambiguous until you explain. But your explanation would be removed from the Like and reside in another tweet (if at all you chose to explain it in a tweet). That would mean those who haven’t seen your tweet explanation and see only your Like would still remain clueless about why you Liked some tweet.

So, a simple solution to avoid ambiguity: err on the side of caution. Likes are public and if you do not want to be misunderstood, Like only those tweets that you wouldn’t be ashamed to be seen in public with. If you still want to keep an archive of a tweet for later use, use an offline, off-Twitter tool – I save the tweet URL on a Google Keep note with some added context.

A related question: are ‘follows’ endorsements? I had a say about that (they are, by the way) in one of Shephali Bhatt’s stories for Livemint.

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