You would imagine that in the cutthroat world of politics, states-people, lawmakers, and political candidates, would be sensible enough to think first and tweet later. However, an app by an organization called Open State Foundation, reveals that in reality, politicians are just as likely as anybody else to make Twitter blunders that they later decide to delete.
In the old days, pledges, opinions, and policy ideas were communicated during TV and radio interviews, as well as printed in newspapers. These days that has all changed, and social media gives politicians the ability to quickly communicate with the world directly. Unfortunately for those quick-fingered politicians, however, sometimes the things that they tweet are regretted later. In order to save face, those politicians often backtrack, delete their Twitter comments, and act like they never happened. Not anymore.
An exquisite app called Politwoops is capturing and saving copies of politicians’ tweets the moment that they go live. The result is a hall of records that is invaluable to journalists and non-governmental organizations who wish to hold politicians accountable for the things that they say. The service means that politicians can be held accountable for the things they say – forever. It is a service that is particularly useful in times of elections, when candidates might make wildly different promises to the things they later do, or have massively different opinions to ones previously (or later) expressed.
OpenState Foundation’s Politwoops
On its website explaining the project, Open State Foundation states:
“Social media has revolutionised political discourse and political campaigning. Unlike a stump speech that may be recorded by television cameras, or election leaflets that are distributed to voters in their thousands, promises and pledges made online can be deleted at the click of a button. Occasionally politicians delete tweets in an attempt to distance themselves from prior statements.”
When launched back in 2010, the app focused on Twitter comments made by politicians in the Netherlands. However, with its value equal in all countries, the service has grown to include the deleted tweets of politicians and public officials in a total of 54 different countries. Among those countries are the United Kingdom, the US, France, Turkey, Chile and Tunisia, as well as the tweets of members of the European Parliament.
As if being able to hold politicians (often said to be liars and false promise makers) accountable isn’t enough, the app even lets users see useful stats, like how long it was before the politician noticed their blunder and decided to neatly tidy away their comment.
US Politwoops by ProPublica
So what did I find when I looked on the US version of Politwoops? Firstly, it is worth noting that some of the deleted tweets are simply politicians cleaning up their pages rather than hiding something that they are embarrassed about. However, I took a casual search through the first pages and did find a number of senators who had deleted anti-Trump sentiment soon after posting their comments. These seem likely to have been genuine Politwoops moments:
Famed video game developer Brianna Wu from Boston, who is running for Congress in 2018 (for a House of Representatives seat), calls Steve Bannon anti-semitic in a tweet and quickly decides that maybe the comment was a bit brash:
In addition, I couldn’t help noticing that at times Wu comes across as being a little bit impulsive. This tweet, for example, that she deleted after 51 seconds (maybe someone should tell her about Politwoops):
On the whole, however, I didn’t see anything that was overly alarming, just momentary lapses of judgment and the odd spelling error.
Donald Trump (the Big Tweeter)
I searched for @realdonaldtrump using the service’s search function but instead of finding his deleted tweets I saw tweets about people who had mentioned him. By flicking through, I was able to find a few deleted Trump tweets, but ProPublica only shows the last 20 pages of deleted tweets by default, so unless you know exactly what to search for it is not easy to stumble on Politwoops gold. By searching on Google, however, I was able to finally locate Donald Trump’s deleted tweets.
Trump is known to be a big tweeter and is often spoken about in derogatory terms because of his fast mouth. Thus I expected to find at least some opinion blunders that had been hidden away. The reality was less exciting, with the new President apparently just tidying up his page when there is a typo, or when an interview is over and he no longer needs to promote its occurrence. Pretty impressive.
Not Always Plain Sailing for Politwoops
Back in 2015, Politwoops was closed down after Twitter got involved and told its then-US owner The Sunlight Foundation to cease publishing deleted political tweets. According to Twitter, the idea of not being able to delete tweets was “nerve-racking — terrifying, even”. Although I can somewhat agree with those sentiments (I am pro-privacy after all), I can also fully comprehend The Sunlight Foundation’s comments from back in 2015:
“What our elected officials say is a matter of public record, and Twitter is an increasingly important part of how our elected officials communicate with the public.
A member of Congress does not and should not have the same expectation of privacy as a private citizen. Power can only be accountable with a generous application of transparency.”
Luckily, Twitter changed its mind and two months ago the service was reinstated, so that people could once more begin holding politicians accountable for their tweets. So, why the change of heart? On deciding that both Sunlight Foundation (in the US) and Open State Foundation (in the Netherlands and the rest of the world) should be disallowed to use its API, Twitter was hit with a barrage of complaints.
17 organizations, including EFF, Free Press, and Human Rights Watch, all spoke out against the decision. That got Twitter founder Jack Dorsey involved in the decision:
“We have a responsibility to continue to power organizations who want to bring transparency like Politwoops.”
With Germany, France and Holland all having elections this year, the service couldn’t have come back at a better time. In Holland, the Open State Foundation version was just relaunched and tracks the deleted tweets of 768 candidates in the Dutch elections. According to Open State, in the last month Forum for Democratie politicians deleted the most tweets, with Tuesday being the time when politicians both tweet the most and delete the most. Similarly to my findings in the US, Dutch politicians tend to delete their tweets within the first hour.
The king of deleting title was given to Mohammed Chahim of the Dutch Labour Party, who deleted a whopping 169 tweets in one month. Interestingly, a high proportion of those were deleted in a single day, right at the beginning of the election campaign. Finally, although PVV leader Geert Wilders was reported as a big deleter of tweets, that is because he deletes his tweets in order to retweet them, rather than because he changed his mind or has something to hide.
In the US, the biggest deleter I came accross was Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.) who tends to delete tweets in batches just minutes after she makes them:
Anybody with a keen interest in politics is recommended to take a look at Politwoops, especially during these sensitive election times. After all, Open State Foundation and ProPublica can only do so much by providing the service. It is up to us to keep an eye open for really big Politwoops, and to hold those politicians accountable when they say things they really shouldn’t. If you spot anything, feel free to tell us about it in the comments section below!