Web Culture

Twitter Cares About Your Privacy… If You’re Famous

Andre Infante 27-08-2015

This week, Twitter How to Use Twitter Twitter can be overwhelming at first, but we're here to help you make sense of it. Here's a complete guide to using Twitter and understanding how it works. Read More drew controversy by shutting down API access What Are APIs, And How Are Open APIs Changing The Internet Have you ever wondered how programs on your computer and the websites you visit "talk" to each other? Read More 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.

So – is Twitter really just being even-handed in enforcing an established privacy policy How to Write a Privacy Policy for Your Website Running a website? This guide goes through what you need to know about creating a privacy policy for your website with example text that you can use. Read More ? Is all the outrage for naught?

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 5 Technologies to Make Sure Your Data Lives Forever They say that on the internet, nothing ever goes away. In reality, almost all of our data is slowly being lost. Can we protect our media for future generations? Read More . 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 How Anyone Can Find Your Personal Details Via Twitter With Tinfoleak Read More 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 How Twitter Was Born [Geek History Lessons] Originally created in 2006 as a short messaging system for small groups, Twitter has since evolved into a powerful communication tool that has dramatically changed how information is shared and spread online. Twitter functions as... Read More 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

Related topics: Internet Censorship, Politics, Twitter.

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  1. Anonymous
    August 27, 2015 at 7:05 pm

    It seems to me that Politiwoops and Diplotwoops sites were created and existed specifically to embarrass politicians, not to hold them accountable. It is disingenuous to pretend otherwise. Don't get me wrong, I have no problems with politicians getting embarrassed. However, if Andre Infante or Joe Blow are allowed to delete their tweets, Mr./Mrs. Politician should also be allowed to.

    The key sentence of the entire article is "Nobody is interested in the tweets you delete unless you’re a public figure." Gaffes by public figures provide a feast for people's schadenfreude appetites. Politiwoops and other sites of that ilk, supply the food for that feast. They call themselves "transparency activists" which, in their case, is a euphemism for muckrakers and mudslingers.