What Would An “Unsend” Feature in Messenger Do to Facebook?

Have you ever sent a message in the heat of the moment that you’d like to take back before the person on the other end has a chance to open it? Although this isn’t currently possible, Facebook might actually include this feature in Messenger, allowing people to “unsend” messages, presumably under certain conditions. It gives users a unique way to have power over their presence on the platform, but it also comes with a load of implications that could possibly even lead to legal issues.

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The motive behind the move to let users get their hands on such a powerful feature comes from a scandal that occurred on April 6, 2018, when TechCrunch revealed that Mark Zuckerberg – Facebook’s CEO – had exclusive access to a feature that would redact his messages. At least three high0-profile anonymous people revealed that messages that Zuckerberg sent them were erased from their inboxes while their replies to what now appears to be absolutely nothing remain.

To avoid any outrage, a few hours later the company announced that it pinky-promises not to allow executives to have access to this feature until all of the platform’s users can unsend their messages.

This move might have come as a result of making Zuckerberg appear as if though he were beta-testing the feature. Officially, Facebook reasons that it deleted its CEO’s messages for security reasons related to the massive breach Sony Pictures suffered in 2014. Here’s a statement from the company in that regard:

After Sony Pictures’ emails were hacked in 2014, we made a number of changes to protect our executives’ communications. These included limiting the retention period for Mark’s messages in Messenger. We did so in full compliance with our legal obligations to preserve messages.

It is unlikely that Zuckerberg’s messages were anything necessarily incriminating since someone would have leaked what little they could find in the transcript to break a story about it. However, the implications and lack of transparency may have been troubling were it not for the fact that the company is making efforts to have such a feature available for all users “in the next several months” after this scandal broke out.

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By unsending a message, you’re not only deleting it from your own inbox but also manipulating the inbox of the recipient. This can lead to some issues that complicate legal proceedings that rely on electronic correspondence like Facebook messages as evidence. In the cybersecurity community, there’s a little something called “transcript consistency,” which is precious when presenting evidence to a court. If you have a message stream from a platform that has consistency, it is more likely to be admitted into evidence.

If “unsending” is possible on Facebook Messenger, the platform loses its transcript consistency, leading to legal situations in which one cannot determine the cause and effect of certain reactions. How do we know, for example, that a person isn’t just talking to themselves, mimicking someone replying to messages that have been erased?

In another note, everyone could theoretically benefit from an “unsend” feature as long as it’s only available before the person on the other end first opens their message. Then again, this eliminates the incentive for people to think about their messages before they send them.

Features like these aren’t new. AOL’s email service once had this feature back when it was an Internet service provider in the late 90s. You could only “unsend” email messages sent to other AOL users, however. This primitive implementation didn’t necessarily spark a whole lot of controversy. And to be fair, Gmail also has this feature (Settings -> Undo Send), but it only allows you to “undo” your sent messages during a brief window of time. It quietly stows your message away during that window and sends them only if you haven’t taken any action to “undo” the message.

Maybe Facebook can implement “unsend” in this way.

What do you think? How should Facebook’s “unsend” feature work so that everyone is satisfied? Tell us about it in a comment!

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