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Twitter revives Politwoops, the tool that preserves politicians' deleted tweets

The social media site recently reached an agreement with two open-government organizations that run the site, which archives politicians' deleted tweets.

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    President Barack Obama live-tweeted from the East Room of the White House during the first ever Twitter Town Hall in July 2011. Twitter reinstated Politwoops, which tracks politicians' deleted tweets, after reaching an agreement with two open government groups that run the site. But as many political figures embrace the site, questions about why it was blocked in June remain.
    Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP file
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Until it was shuttered by Twitter in June, the site Politwoops, which archives politicians’ deleted tweets in more than 30 countries, including the US, served as a sort of living history of how politicians get their messages out online.

It kept records of feuds – former House Speaker John Boehner asserting that President Obama had “deleted jobs” from the economy; French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, a Socialist, repeatedly criticizing former President Nicolas Sarkozy; a member of Germany’s Bundestag declining to vote for the politician his party had endorsed, saying “I didn’t do it the last time and wouldn’t do it now.”

In the US, Politwoops tracked the political temperature on controversial issues, most famously chronicling the responses of both parties to the government shutdown in October 2013. The next year, several elected officials posted messages supporting Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, which were removed days later in the wake of controversy over whether he had walked away from his base before being taken prisoner by a Taliban-affiliated group in Afghanistan.

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However, Twitter axed the service last year, arguing that the project "violates our developer agreement" by preserving deleted tweets.

Then, last week, with little fanfare, Twitter announced the site was back, having been reinstated after the social media site reached an agreement with the two government transparency groups that run the site.

It went back online in Europe on Tuesday, with plans to get it up and running soon in the US, according to the Sunlight Foundation, which opened the US arm in 2012.

But much of the reasoning around Twitter’s decision to shutter it in the first place remains a mystery. In addition to collaborating with Politwoops, Twitter has also partnered with the Library of Congress to archive all of the site’s content.

A “judgment call”

“Honoring the expectation of user privacy for all accounts is a priority for us, whether the user is anonymous or a member of Congress,” the company said in a statement sent to Gawker in June, announcing its decision to revoke Politwoops’ access to its back-end code.

Observers say that for social media sites that have a large degree of control over how we share information online, supporting sites such as Politwoops can be a balancing act.

“With both of these decisions – with either Politwoops stays up or Politwoops gets kicked off... – Twitter’s making a judgment call,” says Emma Llanso, Director of Free Expression at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington. “Do we stand by the letter of our terms, and enforce them across the board for all users, or do they stay true to the higher principles they’ve always talked about, about preserving free speech?”

In interviews, representatives from Sunlight and the Open State Foundation, which founded the site in Europe in 2010, said they began having talks with Twitter in October, after Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, who had recently returned as the company’s head, made a statement supporting the site’s mission.

“I think the overall goal of Politwoops is accountability,” says Jenn Topper, Sunlight’s communications director. “Whether tweets are three seconds old or three days old, public officials should be held accountable.”

“We see [Twitter] as a public square, and that’s where these conversations are happening, so it makes sense that there would be these sort of accountability methods,” she adds.

In the US, Ms. Llanso said, courts have traditionally made a distinction between the rights of private figures to sue for libel and those for public figures, including politicians, while Europe has recently adopted a similar system through its “right to be forgotten,” which applies to search engines.

“One of the things that the search engines take into consideration is there’s a distinction between a private individual saying, ‘Please remove this link relating to a debt I had 17 years ago that’s not really relevant,’ and a politician who’s up for election saying, ‘Please remove this link about a scandal I was involved in five years ago,’ ” she says.

But many politicians have been supportive of the site, with some even deleting tweets deliberately in order to check if the site is working or following a deleted tweet with a response explaining the deletion, Ms. Topper says.

When Mr. Boehner wondered about deleted jobs “in the Obama economy” in 2012, for example, he included the hashtag #politwoops, seemingly using the deleted tweet for strategic purposes.

An “army of writers” for social media

It turns out that, months away from the presidential primary, the candidates that have proved successful are increasingly employing a similar strategy, making use of social media to present a seemingly unfiltered, unvarnished view that’s also likely highly-calculated.

It’s a strategy borrowed from brand marketing techniques often used by advertisers to make their brand seem like a person and appeal to particular groups of consumers, says Bob Egner, vice president of product management at EpiServer, a software company that provides e-commerce and digital marketing tools. This fall, the company studied how the 2016 presidential candidates use social media.

Despite having radically different views, presidential candidates with a populist message, such as Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, have made use of social media to speak in often-direct terms to voters.

“There’s been a lot of speculation about how that’s happening,” Mr. Egner says, noting that many pundits have been predicting Mr. Trump’s decline – possibly as a result of his seemingly off-the-cuff social media posts, which have also been labeled offensive – for months. “There’s no way one guy is getting all this done. You believe it’s one person, but more likely it’s army of writers, the key thing there is the simplicity of the language [in the tweets]."

The vagueness of Trump’s language, in particular, may hold the key to his ability to stay in the race, which compares with the litany of scandals chronicled on social media that have sometimes proved to be politicians’ undoing.

“I think [for advertisers and politicians] the more important thing is how the brand manages itself, and in some cases not being the quickest to respond is important,” Egner adds. “If Trump missteps, he’s somehow vague enough or adds a little out that he can go back to and say ‘I didn’t mean that,’ or waits to respond, and that’s a completely different way of using social media.”

Twitter as a research tool

While Twitter is often seen as the ultimate medium of the here and now, it also has large potential for researchers. That was the thought behind the Twitter archive first unveiled by the Library of Congress in 2010.

The Library, which was seen as a pioneer in the 1990s with the launch of Thomas.gov, an online archive of Congressional records, has since faced criticism from some members of Congress and library groups for not fully embracing changing technology.

When it announced the Twitter project, hopes were high given its prominence as a preeminent cultural institution. But it has faced a series of challenges in the five years that followed, library officials say.

Chief among them has been the difficulty of preserving and archiving voluminous amount of tweets published in that time. So far, after beginning with tweets from 2006 to 2010, the project has archived about 170 billion tweets, the Library announced in 2013.

“So much has changed technically with tweets since we began collecting this with Twitter,” says J. Mark Sweeney, associate librarian for library services, who oversees the two-century-old institution’s collections and acquisitions. “I think when we first started acquiring this, it was more a focus on the technical challenge – on how do we go about handling this amount of data from one organization but representing the views of thousands of users, and understanding the complexity of the data."

Part of those concerns have included debates over the idea of what sorts of information should be archived for posterity. Unlike Politwoops, the Library will not archive tweets that a user has deleted.

“I think we could talk about the particular value of any particular tweet,” Mr. Sweeney says. "At least one of the ways I look at Twitter is as the organization that provides the tools, and the users that use those tools. There’s a relationship between the two, and what we’ve said is that we would honor the intent of the user, of the creator of the tweet."

“What do we mean by a 'public tweet' today, I think, has changed,” he adds. “And that ties into whether a user wants to change the availability of a tweet. The library has said that it will honor deleted tweets, and out of an abundance of caution, we need to be sure we can meet that promise.”

As a result, Sweeney says, the Library hasn’t established a particular timeline for making the archive available to researchers. Its continuing challenge, given the task involved, is simply to maintain the data received from Twitter, and apply information about which tweets have been deleted. But, he adds, “there’s always the hope that eventually we will be to make it accessible to some level of research.”

Issues of transparency?

While Twitter has pledged to “bring more transparency to public dialogue” in the wake of reinstating Politwoops, when it originally shuttered the site, it seemed to take a different tone.

According to the transparency groups, Twitter sent different messages to the two sites explaining its decision for the shut down.

The one sent to the Open State Foundation was more strongly-worded.

“Imagine how nerve-racking – terrifying, even – tweeting would be if it was immutable and irrevocable? No one user is more deserving of that ability than another. Indeed, deleting a tweet is an expression of the user’s voice,” the company wrote, according to a statement by Open State in August.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment from the Monitor.

Arjan El-Fassed, president of the Open State Foundation, which is based in the Netherlands, says that now that it was back online in Europe, he looks forward to continuing to improve the site’s search features and to continuing its mission.

“What politicians publicly say is a matter of public record,” he writes in an email. "Even when tweets are deleted, it’s part of parliamentary history. These tweets were once posted and later deleted ... This is not about typos but it is a unique insight on how messages from politicians can change without notice."

Llanso, of the Center and Democracy and Technology, noted that Twitter itself could also go further by improving its own transparency to better explain its terms of service.

“I think the Politwoops story is a really great reminder of the fact that so much of our everyday speech, whether it’s political speech or just telling your family what you want to do over the holidays, depends on private companies,” she says. “Whether it's Internet service providers or social media sites, really seeing transparency from those companies on how they treat your data is vital, because we’re all putting so much out there, they really need to make sure that those terms are clear to their users.”

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