Like most things online, tweets can ostensibly be forever, but they probably shouldn’t. It’s a lesson many Twitter users have taken to in recent years, resulting in upwards of 5 million people enlisting independent services like TweetDelete and Tweet Archive Eraser in the hopes of ridding themselves of years of publicly accessible (usually bad) takes, comments, and posts.
Paris Martineau covers platforms, online influence, and social media manipulation for WIRED.
The services let users auto-delete their tweets at specific intervals or wipe the slate clean by deleting all of their tweets. But despite such efforts, and some clever browser hacks, one sizable part of users’ Twitter history remains public and largely permanent: likes.
Twitter users can delete some of their past likes—one at a time. But Twitter doesn’t allow users to delete likes in bulk. Twitter didn’t return a request for comment, but it makes sense that a platform that thrives on the engagement of its users would have a vested interest in ensuring that users’ more communal contributions aren’t easily wiped from the site years after the fact.
Since Twitter doesn’t offer the option, outside services have sprung up to help people erase their Twitter past. Those services tap Twitter’s Application Programming Interface (API), which gives an app limited access to your account, once you’ve authorized it. Through the API, the services can delete all your terrible 2009-era takes, says Fayssal Martani, creator of Tweet Archive Eraser. But likes are a different beast altogether.
“When we issue a delete request to Twitter for a tweet or retweet, if the API returns that the tweet was deleted, it is guaranteed to be deleted,” Martani explained. “For likes, that’s not the case. Twitter returns that the like is either deleted or ‘not found,’ but sometimes it is deleted, sometimes it is not. There is no way of ensuring a like [was actually removed].”
The only way to ensure that a like has been scrubbed from the platform, he says, is to do it the old-fashioned way: manually unliking a tweet. But Martani says it would be hard to delete your entire like record, because Twitter appears not to display all of your past likes on your profile.
Tweet Archive Eraser relies on information pulled from users’ Twitter archive files—which a user must download from Twitter then upload to the Archive Eraser site—to get a complete record of their tweets and likes. Even then, the process of deleting likes is buggy at best, and only works for the user’s most recent likes.
Richard West, creator of TweetDelete, says Twitter appears to limit services like his to deleting roughly 3,200 likes. “We’ve found that likes outside this 3,200 window can’t be removed even if we get details on them from another source” such as a Twitter data file, he told WIRED over email.
The limit applies to recent likes that were previously deleted, West says, meaning a user can’t run TweetDelete multiple times to erase all their likes. But it appears to apply only historically, he says. “If a user deleted 3,200 likes in the past, and then liked 1,000 new posts, we would also be able to delete those 1,000 new likes,” he says. “It’s not a hard limit of 3,200 per account.”
Neither West nor Martani know of any service that can remove more than 3,200 old likes. “The bug has been there forever,” says Martani. “People didn’t notice before archives were available, because Twitter didn’t allow you to access your old likes.”
But is it a bug or a feature?
That the number of people who liked your lackluster #DemDebate2020 live tweets will likely be preserved till the bitter end might come as a strange comfort to some. Yet if the weaponization of users’ past tweets and the subsequent rise of tweet-deleting services is any indication, the strange permanence of likes could come back to bite us in the end.