This week, Twitter drew controversy by shutting down API access to a number of watchdog websites that monitor politicians’ social media accounts for deletions. The sites, which are run by the Sunlight Foundation, include “Politiwhoops,” and “Diplotwhoops,” and provided this information about politicians from countries all over the world. In total, 31 sites were shut down. Twitter originally shut down the US branch of Politwhoops in June, and extended that decision this week to the sister sites in all other countries.
The online outcry has been considerable, as transparency activists accuse Twitter of being hypocritical, an enemy of democracy, and other bad things. Let’s take a closer look at exactly what Twitter did, and why.
Twitter’s Story: It’s About Privacy
In an email to the OSF, Twitter explained its decision, saying that it chose to block these services after “thoughtful internal deliberation and close consideration of a number of factors.” Twitter also emphasized that it was simply treating politicians the same way it treats other users, and that it would be unfair to allow anyone’s deleted tweets to be preserved.
“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.”
To Twitter’s credit, this is already an established policy. Twitter’s API agreement does forbid developers from publicly posting deleted tweets.
Well… not quite.
The Problem: This Isn’t Consistent
There are a few issues with Twitter’s justification for their decision. The first is that, while this is an established policy, it’s one that’s gone unenforced for a long time. Twitter explicitly allowed these services back in 2012, presumably as part of their then-stated commitment to transparency and free speech. Twitter CEO Dick Costello once called Twitter “the free speech arm of the free speech party.”
According to the Sunlight Foundation, the service has been operating for three years with Twitter’s blessing, despite its violation of the terms of service.
“Days after Politwoops launched in 2012, Twitter contacted the Sunlight Foundation and told us, ‘Your service violates our API Terms of Service on a fundamental level.’ We explained the goals of the project and agreed to create a human curation workflow to ensure that the site screened out corrected low-value tweets like typos, links and Twitter handles. We implemented this layer of journalistic judgment with blessings from Twitter and the site continued.”
This raises major questions. If this is about evenhandedly enforcing policy, then why was the site ever allowed in the first place? If it’s not, and Twitter genuinely believed that the service should be allowed, then what changed? One explanation could be that the upcoming US election is putting pressure on Twitter to cater to these powerful people. If that’s the case, then this looks a lot less like Twitter simply evenly enforcing an old policy, and a lot more like Twitter capitulating to powerful interests.
I’m also skeptical about the policy itself. Even assuming it’s enforced evenhandedly, it may be a case where “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.”
The policy seems to interpret Twitter as a private space, which is more than a little strange. Tweets are usually broadcast to hundreds or thousands of followers, and can be freely shared among non-followers. Twitter is extremely public. To stick a metaphor on it, Twitter is more like a loud public bazaar than it is like a debate club or a courtroom – places where it might be reasonable to preclude discussion of retracted comments. It’s a truism that nothing goes away on the Internet. It’s a bit peculiar that Twitter is suddenly invested in bucking that trend.
Attempting to force Twitter into the framework of a private space in this specific way is a bizarre move, and one that adds no value for virtually all of Twitter’s customers. Nobody is interested in the tweets you delete unless you’re a public figure. This “feature” of the user agreement benefits nobody except politicians. For most users of the service, much more realistic violations of their privacy would be, say, their demographic information being scraped by an automatic tool, or Twitter selling corporations a list of all of their tweets so that they can be better advertised to, as Twitter began doing this year.
In other words, Twitter’s seems to be fairly selective in whose privacy it’s interested in protecting. Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton are on the list. You aren’t.
Retweets and Responsibility
This issue raises a larger concern with modern discourse. Increasingly, our political lives takes place on an increasingly short list of websites. That gives these sites a lot of power – and a lot of responsibility. Twitter has taken a prominent role in the Arab Spring and other revolutions around the globe.
Twitter has also taken center stage in how ordinary people relate to politicians. It has a responsibility to support and open, honest, and transparent political discourse. In this case, that means not going out of their way to help the powerful cover their tracks when they need to backtrack on an old position – or even destroy evidence when they violate Congressional ethical standards, as happened with the nomination of Paul Ryan for VP.
As Jules Mattsson, who runs the DeletedByMP’s service (one of those recently cut off) said,
“It’s a terrible shame that twitter have made this decision. Politwoops has been an important new tool in political accountability in the UK and abroad. Politicians are all too happy to use social media to campaign but if we lose the ability for this to be properly preserved, it becomes a one way tool.“
Twitter is too important to be “a one-way tool.” It must be more than that, and we as its users must hold it to that higher standard.
What do you think? Did Twitter cross a line? Let us know in the comments!
Image Credits:holding a piece of paper by Pop Paul-Catalin via Shutterstock