Since 2012, Politwoops has been preserving tweets deleted by US lawmakers. They range from typos and other understandable social media slips to out and out attempts to hide real embarrassment and scandal.
On May 15, it stopped working. And the reason soon became apparent: Twitter had decided the project was in breach of its terms of service and had shut off its API access.
It was a clash between the letter and the spirit of the law. Politwoops was flouting the social network’s rules, but everyone had known that since it came online in 2012.
The Sunlight Foundation, which runs the US site, came to an agreement with Twitter soon after launch, as its president Christopher Gates wrote yesterday:
Days after Politwoops launched in 2012, Twitter contacted the Sunlight Foundation and told us, “Your service violates our API Terms of Service on a fundamental level.”
We explained the goals of the project and agreed to create a human curation workflow to ensure that the site screened out corrected low-value tweets like typos, links and Twitter handles. We implemented this layer of journalistic judgment with blessings from Twitter and the site continued.
But as of May 15, that deal seems to have become null and void. In a statement first released to Gawker and subsequently repeated to me with identical wording, Twitter says:
Honoring the expectation of user privacy for all accounts is a priority for us, whether the user is anonymous or a member of Congress.
It goes on to quote this passage from its developer agreement:
Only surface Twitter activity as it surfaced on Twitter. For example, your Service should execute the unfavorite and delete actions by removing all relevant Content, not by publicly displaying to other users that the Tweet is no longer favorited or has been deleted.
It’s a tin-eared and lead-footed response from Twitter – let’s use all the metallic metaphors for this moronic move – which utterly ignores the question of holding elected representatives to a higher standard.
And the death of Politwoops in the US will have a global impact, because the project was not born there and doesn’t stop at its borders.
Snatching up scandals
Politwoops began in the Netherlands in 2010 and is actually a project of the Open State Foundation, an organization dedicated to political transparency. The effort has now spread to 30 countries, not including the stymied US version.
As for now, 30 countries are alive and kicking, but it seems like it’s only a matter of time before they’re affected. We have not been contacted by Twitter. The first we knew of it was our conversations with The Sunlight Foundation, who we work closely with. It spoke to Twitter in May, but only went public in June.
In the Netherlands, Politwoops covers not just MPs but every local and regional election, also monitoring the tweets of members of 400 municipal and regional councils. In the UK, the @deletedbyMPs account has regularly been cited by the media.
— Tweets MPs Delete (@deletedbyMPs) June 4, 2015
Twitter refused to discuss the status of the active Politwoops accounts with me – a tight-lipped stance that will be familiar to many journalists who deal with the company – but El Fassed rejects its failure to distinguish between ‘ordinary’ users and elected officials:
Candidates who don’t get elected are removed from the lists. We’re not publishing direct messages or deleted direct messages. I was a member of parliament myself. If I go out and make a speech, it gets noticed.
What’s the difference between that and publicly posting on Twitter? There’s no ‘right to be forgotten’ on Google for politicians and public figures. These tweets are part of parliamentary history and anyway 90 percent of deleted tweets are down to typos.
It’s that crucial 10 percent that aren’t just slips of the finger that mean Politwoops matters. Take another Dutch example – earlier this year, Mark Verheijen, a VVD MP, resigned after an inquiry into the mixing of private expenses with political ones. During that process, he deleted a number of tweets, including one about using a government car to a campaign event. Those deleted tweets were preserved by Politwoops and directly contributed to the investigation.
After the Arab Spring, the Twitter winter
I have heard from several sources that Twitter seems to be taking a far harder line as it pushes for profitability. Where once it looked benevolently on projects dedicated to political transparency, it now looks more to the bottom line. Of course, that could be entirely wrong but the company is unwilling to debate its thinking or strategy in this area openly.
While the loss of efforts like Politwoops in countries such as the US, the Netherlands and Germany – all of which have at least some semblance of a critical media – would be regrettable, it would be appalling in nations where reporting is regularly curtailed. In states like Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey, transparency projects are vital.
El Fassed says the Open State Foundation has tried to have a dialog with Twitter but that it has simply referred the organization back to its original announcement:
We spoke to Twitter and they just referred to the US statement. Twitter in other countries seems to basically be advertising offices. When it comes to policy, they refer back to the US.
The ‘land of the free’ was the first to see the efforts to keep an eye on politicians’ sneaky deletions shut down, but it doesn’t look like it will be the last. If Politwoops falls, we will have lost a powerful tool for journalists and citizens alike. And in killing it, Twitter will have killed s credibility as a platform for free speech.