No, Elon Musk (probably) didn't delete all pre-2014 photos from Twitter
20.08.2023

A Twitter user noticed that pre-2014 photos on Twitter were no longer visible. People were quick to accuse Elon Musk of deleting this old media, a sure sign of the fragility of the internet. But the truth is more complicated.

Just a few days ago I wrote about the fragility of online content. I was made aware today of a post on the nascent social media network, Bluesky, alerting me to some suppositions that my concerns were already playing out. A user had tried performing a search of his media tweets from before 2014, apparently with no result. People were quick to jump to conclusions. Forbes quickly published an article, “Twitter Deletes All User Photos And Links From 2011-2014”, which reported some surface level experimentation and quickly went into a breakdown of site owner Elon Musk’s erratic, incompetent and childish behavior in the last several months. It’s easy bait. The problem is it’s also not entirely correct.

A quick check of Twitter’s functionality can debunk this claim. Try searching for brady until:2013-10-15 filter:media. You’ll quickly see plenty of images alongside tweets with what appear to be dead hyperlinks. Similar searches yield similar results. Try obama until:2012-10-15 filter:media or putin until:2012-04-20 filter:links. There are plenty of pictures and links.1

Clearly, then, it’s not all photos and links, as Forbes suggests. What is going on?

A quick scan will show that the missing media and links result from broken resolvers on the t.co link shortening domain. In fact, if you go back to pre-2011, before Twitter started using t.co for link shortening (a critical feature when the service was limited to 140 characters), you’ll find tons of broken links and images, many of them pointing to domains Twitter does not and has never owned.

This is not a new problem. In March of this year, Twitter broke links and photos. An API change resulted in a regression and a roll back was quickly applied. These types of failures were readily predicted when Musk started laying off Twitter engineers by the hundreds. Peripheral functionality, e.g. link resolvers, search, follower listing, and so forth, were all part of the microservices architecture that Musk so despised. This decay has been visible although not obvious. The dying features are not part of the site’s core functionality. I’ve been having problems with search for months. As I wrote a few days ago, I have been manually pruning tweets. This involved me regularly executing searches by date and working backwards. This method hasn’t worked for months. It’s very frustrating. The issue here appears to be a lack of re-indexing of the search database. In a functional company, this would happen regularly, if not automatically.

It’s of course true that users can, at least as of now, no longer get the images through Twitter’s interface. But this does not imply the pictures were permanently deleted. This may not seem like an important distinction, but it does matter for users in the European Union whose rights under GDPR provide for the right to be forgotten and the right to their own data. It’s possible Twitter has the images but has broken the internal pointers to where they’re stored. It’s also possible that Twitter deleted them, put them in cold storage, or lost encryption keys to them. We simply don’t know. But the difference is material. The sure way to tell will be to request your Twitter archives and see if the images are provided along with. I can’t test this; I had deleted all pre-2016 tweets long ago.

The bigger issue here is the fragility of URL shorteners. People were talking about Twitter’s use of them as early as 2009, and plenty of people were already worried about the so-called Link Rot Apocalypse. This is hardly a new problem, and it’s one that every internet user should be aware of. This doesn’t make Twitter’s latest display of incompetence any less harmful, but it does highlight that this is hardly a new risk of the platform. Musk’s takeover amplified this risk, of course, and the competence of his managerial approach certainly assumes some degree of culpability. But the evidence shows that this was neither an intentional nor systematic action on behalf of Twitter. There are plenty of pre-2014 images still available on the site. It’s rather a case of Hanlon’s razor and serves as a sufficiently strong argument against further use of the platform. Spend less time worrying about Musk, the evil mastermind, and spend more time distancing yourself from Musk, the incompetent buffoon.


  1. you can hardly blame Forbes for getting it wrong. Twitter has long been replying to media enquiries with a poop emoji and nothing more. ↩︎

Posted: 20.08.2023

Built: 18.04.2024

Updated: 20.08.2023

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