How Much Does Deleting Tweets Matter?

New SNL cast member Melissa Villasenor came under fire for some old tweets, and she's not alone. Does it matter?


Melissa Villaseñor is the first Latina to ever join the cast of Saturday Night Live, and after two weeks, she’s showing she belongs on the iconic show. But the milestone has been in part overshadowed by a controversy stemming from her Twitter account, which featured what many considered inappropriate, racially charged tweets. After her casting announcement and before her first episode, Villaseñor went back to scrub her account, and it appears that about two thousand tweets, most of which were written several years ago, were taken down.

The latest Twitter brouhaha ignited an increasingly familiar debate — some commentators felt that Villaseñor’s comments were inexcusable, while others suggested that she was the victim of a social media witch hunt. Other, crazier people, believe that there is probably a middle ground between the two. Without a doubt, Villaseñor’s tweets, which were mostly pulled from 2010 and 2011, when the impressionist comedian was in her early twenties, showed extreme insensitivity to a litany of minorities, but as her defenders ask, should they come back to haunt someone six years later?

If the argument sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve been through this before. Back in March of 2015, shortly before Trevor Noah assumed Jon Stewart’s long-held Daily Show throne, the South African comedian came under fire for insensitive tweets regarding gender and race in the early 2010s. While equally insensitive at the time of posting, Noah weathered the storm and criticized the media at the time for digging them up in the first place, tweeting, “To reduce my views to a handful of jokes that didn’t land is not a true reflection of my character, nor my evolution as a comedian.”

Sure, his ratings haven’t been great, but the tweets certainly didn’t affect his job security, and his home network Comedy Central stood by him through the debacle. Noah weathered the storm, but the news cycle didn’t excuse him from the scrutiny.

When asked about the nature of the criticism of Villaseñor, writer April Reign told the Huffington Post that while some of Villaseñor’s posts are jokes that didn’t land, others are more troubling.

“What I see in Melissa’s statements, in some cases, aren’t jokes but racist and anti-Black statements,” Reign explained.

There is no way to completely delete a tweet’s existence, and not just because of vigilante screenshot-takers. Twitter executives have tried to help users, including high-profile figures, the discomfort of having their deleted tweets accessible on the public record. The organization said last year that “deleting a tweet is an expression of the user’s voice,” and denied the Open State Foundation, an organization with a partial mission to automatically archive the deleted tweets of politicians, access to Twitter’s API.

But in January 2016 — perhaps in light of an increasingly volatile election cycle - Twitter restored API access to Open State and their site Politiwoops, allowing us to see everything Donald Trump randomly or strategically deletes from his feed, and how long it was available before being removed.

The list of politicians who have tweeted racially insensitive or even straight up careless thoughts while in office goes on for miles — significant examples include every other thing Donald Trump posts, Representative Pat Garofalo claiming that all NBA players are criminals, and the infamous Anthony Weiner scandals. These tweets are archived and available thanks to sites like Politiwoops, leaving their authors to still account for the contents of their posts.

A Facebook post by 'SNL' star Michael Che in 2014

Villaseñor isn’t a politician herself and the media beat her to some incriminating tweets, but the precedent stands — media circus or no, it’s fair game.

However, the amount of attention Villaseñor’s tweets have attracted is disproportionate to criticism of her fellow cast members, especially considering the fact that she’s only performed on one episode. Weekend Update host and long-time writer Michael Che’s unapologetic sexism has been acknowledged in the press in the past, but not with the same vigor of the cases of Villaseñor and Noah. Like Noah, however, Che did not apologize for statements made in 2014, in which he defended catcalling and didn’t experience any significant career setback. In fact, he’s currently starring in commercials with feminist icon Tina Fey in credit card commercials.

At present, Villaseñor has chosen complete silence instead of Che’s sarcastic approach or Noah’s diplomatic one — nothing has been posted to her account since the story broke.

Value judgements aside, the hard fact is that just like your high school guidance counselor warned you, there’s no definitive way to take back a statement made on a platform as public as Twitter. That applies whether you’ve been a publicly polarizing figure for decades like Trump or have skyrocketed to national attention overnight like Villaseñor. If you’re saying something hateful in the context of public policy or careless insult, it’s still valid and up for examination. For the moment, Villaseñor has chosen to keep her head down and gotten to work, and letting her performance speak louder than her six-year-old statements.

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