The Twitter policy that led to the global death of Politwoops — the archiving service that, until this past weekend, published the deleted tweets of politicians around the world — actually makes a bit of sense when you think about it in a vacuum. Twitter requires its API partners (companies allowed direct access to its data via an Application Programming Interface) to respect the decisions its users make on Twitter proper. So when a Twitter user deletes a tweet, Twitter's API partners must delete it too.
The idea behind this is logical: Twitter doesn't want to directly enable the preservation of tweets when people delete them. And regardless of its intent, Politwoops was a de facto violator of this policy, something Twitter hinted at in a statement Monday: "We take our commitment to our users seriously and will continue to defend and respect our users' voices in our product and platform," the company said.
Twitter's explanation would be unremarkable if this was the spring of 2012, when Politwoops debuted. But according to the site's U.S. facilitator the Sunlight Foundation, Twitter has been in touch with Politwoops since that time, and largely ignored Politwoops until a few months ago when Twitter abruptly cut off the service in the U.S. "We are truly mystified as to what prompted the change of heart, and it's deeply disappointing to see Twitter kill a project they had supported since 2012," the Sunlight Foundation said at the time.
This past weekend, Twitter dropped the hammer on Politwoops again. It banned Politwoops in the 30 countries it was operating in outside of the U.S. and issued a statement implying that it just determined Politwoops was in violation of its policy. "Recently, we identified several services that used the feature we built to allow for the deletion of tweets to instead archive and highlight them," the company said. "We subsequently informed these services of their noncompliance and suspended their access to our APIs."
"In our case, we know it is in fact disingenuous," said Sunlight Foundation President Chris Gates in an interview, referring to Twitter's "recent" characterization. "We were doing it in plain sight with their approval," he said. "These are known public sites and so I think they've been aware for a while."
If Twitter did "support" Politwoops, as Sunlight claims, then it's hard to view the company's decision to shut it down as anything other than a sudden about face. And though that may be a win for Twitter's platform team, which would presumably want politicians to feel comfortable on the service and confident that they can control their image on it, it's likely a loss for everyone else.
While many of us delete tweets when we make typos or tweet broken links, politicians sometimes delete them for another reason: when they don't want to be held accountable for what they say there. Elected representatives in the U.S., for instance, mass deleted tweets celebrating the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl when it became politically inexpedient to support him. In another case, a congressman was caught by Politwoops deleting a tweet that passed along a suggestion that wolves could solve the "homeless problem." Yet another painted an evil caricature of Michelle Obama.
"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," said Open State Foundation Director Arjan El Fassed, in a statement Monday. The organization was running Politwoops in 30 countries until the project's API access was cut off.
For three years Twitter allowed Politwoops to archive this material. Then, suddenly, it didn't. And now, as we head into election season, a time when the archiving of deleted tweets might add to the public discourse, the resource providing that service is gone.
Announcing what it described as "complete access to every historical public Tweet" earlier this month, Twitter engineer Adam Tornes cited Carl Sagan's famous quote, "You have to know the past to understand the present." A good maxim, and one perhaps worth keeping in mind here.
Twitter declined comment beyond its earlier statement.