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For Politicians, A Tweet Is No Longer Forever

Twitter defended the Politwoops move by saying that tweeting would be "nerve-wracking – terrifying, even" if you couldn't delete your old tweets.
For Politicians, A Tweet Is No Longer Forever

A tweet is no longer forever -- at least, if you're a politician!

Herrman was reacting to an announcement from Twitter that it was facilitating the search of its entire archive of tweets, something it pitched as being critical for allowing "brands to most effectively analyze Twitter data." Toxic tweets will be easier to find.

That was on August 11. On August 21, Twitter did something different: It shut off access to its application program interface, or API, for a tool that archived politicians' tweets. It had previously stopped access to the API for Politwoops, a site that archived American politicians' tweets. Now, projects gathering tweets from politicians in 30 countries and the European parliament are similarly disconnected.

Twitter defended the Politwoops move by saying that tweeting would be "nerve-wracking – terrifying, even" if you couldn't delete your old tweets. "[D]eleting a tweet is an expression of the user’s voice," it continued.

"What elected politicians publicly say is a matter of public record," Arjen El Fassed, director of the group that operated those systems wrote in a statement. "Even when tweets are deleted, it’s part of parliamentary history. ... What politicians say in public should be available to anyone. This is not about typos but it is a unique insight on how messages from elected politicians can change without notice." For politicians, there are other mortal risks.

I made a similar point after Politwoops closed. When then-New York Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner accidentally tweeted a photo and deleted it, that's substantially different than when you tweet a picture and delete it. When politicians try to whitewash their records by deleting past public positions, that's different, too. Politwoops used the power of programming to ensure that such things weren't missed.

But this latest move is more alarming. Among the 30 countries that will no longer have the benefit of an automated system for backing up tweets are countries like Turkey and Egypt, countries without particularly open governments and which could benefit from more political accountability. It also includes countries like the U.K. and Australia where democracy has a firm grip but in which accountability is no less important.


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Twitter's argument is fairly simple. If you delete a tweet, it should be gone. If you don't delete it, it should be able to be surfaced. That makes sense for a company trying to sell a service to advertisers and cater to a user base of consumers. Respects privacy, but takes advantage of its increasingly substantial data pool to allow deep analysis.

But Twitter isn't just a company that matches consumers and advertisers. It's an integral part of real-time global communications, including communications from elected officials. The failure to set a different standard for different types of users -- especially as candidates increasingly use Twitter as part of their political campaigns -- is a disservice to the community that uses it. This is not a court of law in which a comment can be stricken from the record. It's a public square with a hot mic.

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