Twitter is purging inactive accounts including people who have died, angering those still grieving


WASHINGTON: Emily Reed lost her younger sister Jessica more than 10 years ago. For much of the last decade, she frequented Jessica’s Twitter page to “keep her memory alive.”
Twitter became one of the places where Emily worked through her grief and reconnected with a sister she describes as almost like a twin sister. But Jessica’s account is gone now.
Last week, owner Elon musk announced that Twitter will delete accounts that have not had any activity for several years. That decision drew an outcry from those who have lost, or fear losing, the thoughts and words of deceased loved ones linked to accounts that are now inactive.
Reed immediately returned to Jessica’s side, as she had done a day or two earlier after learning of the purge. Instead of Jessica’s page, an “Account Suspended” message appeared, suggesting that there may have been a violation of the Twitter Rules.
Reed’s tweet expressing her shock at losing the account has garnered tens of thousands of responses. Others reported similar pain when they learned that a loved one’s record was gone.
“Having these digital footprints … is super important to me,” Reed, 43, told The Associated Press.
The advent of social media brings with it a new way in which people grieve and return to the place where they were connected with friends and family in the past. In addition to the memories and physical traces left behind, excerpts from past lives are now also being recorded in digital space.
It’s something that social media platforms have struggled with in recent years.
Due to a similar backlash, Twitter shelved an attempt to delete inactive accounts in 2019, years before Musk’s arrival.
Other social media sites have found ways to give people the opportunity to mourn the deceased.
Facebook and Instagram allow users to request account deactivation or account deletion. Memorial reports show the word “Remembrance” next to the person’s name.
“In our modern age, we have these electronic memories of people — (including) small snippets of a thought they had on a given day or pictures they shared,” he said Shira Gabriel, Professor of Psychology at the University at Buffalo. Looking at the social media of a loved one who has passed can be both a healthy way to process the grief and come together as a community to commemorate, Gabriel said.
The prospect of the disappearance of this resource “can bring back a sense of sadness,” Gabriel said. “Removing that leftover digital fingerprint and this ability for community members to gather in one place comes with a real psychological cost.”
It is unknown if Musk will back down from his decision to purge. Tesla’s billionaire CEO has introduced policies that have unsettled users and advertisers alike, and has shown little interest in changing those policies in response.
Musk last week appointed a new CEO, Linda Yaccarino, a former ad executive for NBCUniversal, who will have her hands full managing a platform that appears to be in perpetual chaos.
Deleting inactive accounts can be seen as fulfilling a promise Musk made when he bought the company, specifically eliminating junk accounts and bots, he said Samuel WoolleyAssistant Professor at the University of Texas at the Austin School of Journalism and Media.
There are good reasons to keep inactive accounts and reasons to delete them, Woolley said, but he’s wary of the “one size fits all” approach.
Account cleaning proponents cite skewed metrics caused by inactive accounts or fake content on social media platforms. But aside from the emotional pain for some users mourning the loss of loved ones, deleting inactive accounts could also mean losing tweets that have documented historical events, comments, and breaking news within the app over the years.
“Twitter works like a data library in many ways,” Woolley said. “Just because someone hasn’t been active for 30 days or a few years doesn’t mean their tweets aren’t still highly relevant.”
Musk said the reason for removing inactive accounts was to free up unused Twitter handles or usernames and to archive those inactive accounts.
Exactly what that means isn’t known—nor what inactive accounts look like when archived, and whether they’re easily accessible. Other details of the plan are also unclear, such as the number of accounts to be removed and whether the policy will be evenly enforced.
For example, while Reed and others watched the inactive accounts of their loved ones disappear last week, the account of controversial internet personality Andrew Tate’s late father appears to still be on the site.
On Twitter, Tate said he was okay with Musk’s decision but asked that his father’s account remain active as he “still reads his account daily.”
Selecting accounts for deactivation would create “exactly the kind of tiered system that Musk says he wants to avoid,” Woolley said.
When The Associated Press reached out to him for comment, Twitter responded with an automated email. Ella Irwin, head of trust and safety at Twitter, also didn’t respond.
As per Twitter policy, the social media platform determines account inactivity through logins. Twitter states that users should log in at least every 30 days.
Twitter users can download an archive of their own data through the app, but not for accounts they don’t have login credentials for. For example, Reed noted that her family hadn’t had access to Jessica’s account for the past ten years. The only clues they have now are some screenshots that Reed’s other sister luckily took before the purge.
Reed speaks about the importance of Jessica’s Twitter and Facebook pages during her journey with grief – from following her sister’s difficult journey with cystic fibrosis, a progressive genetic disorder Reed also suffers from, to appreciating tweets that “The joy and… the aliveness” showed that came from her words.”
Over time, the image and memories of someone who has died can slowly change in your mind — “like a fading photograph,” Reed said. She added that online resources can help “keep a person’s memory alive in a way that only your personal memory can’t.”

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