Earlier this summer, Twitter suddenly and unilaterally disabled the U.S. version of Politwoops, a website which tracked tweets that had been deleted by American politicians. At the time, Twitter believed the site was violating the lawmakers’ privacy. (“Honoring the expectation of user privacy for all accounts is a priority for us,” a spokesperson told Gawker in June, “whether the user is anonymous or a member of Congress.”) Now Twitter has gone even further and disabled the Politwoops of thirty more countries, as well as a similar website for diplomats and embassies called Diplotwoops. The effect of doing so is clear: Twitter has made government officials significantly less accountable to the public for what they say and do online.
Twitter said that its decision to suspend access to Politwoops followed a ‘thoughtful internal deliberation and close consideration of a number of factors’ and that it doesn’t distinguish between users. Twitter wrote: ‘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.’ ...
Arjan El Fassed (director of Open State Foundation): ‘What elected politicians publicly say is a matter of public record. Even when tweets are deleted, it’s part of parliamentary history. These tweets were once posted and later deleted. 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.’
As El Fassed notes, Politwoops and Diplotwoops have repeatedly helped journalists and voters keep track of politicians’ inconsistent statements about matters of public concern. In one particularly vivid example, the site caught several American lawmakers deleting tweets in which they had congratulated the American POW Bowe Bergdahl upon his return from Taliban captivity in Afghanistan. The lawmakers tried to erase their support for Bergdahl after soldiers in Bergdahl’s unit began accusing him of desertion. Few if any people would have noticed such deletions without Politwoops. Which means that, in the service’s absence, elected officials across the world will have an easier time disappearing their public statements with little or zero notice.