- The Washington Times - Monday, August 24, 2015

Twitter has done a huge favor for bungling politicians worldwide after the social media site canceled Politwoops, a series of dozens of accounts that preserved deleted posts the pols would have preferred the public not see.

The company said it had only recently become aware of the sites, which it said broke a longstanding company policy that treats congressmen, parliamentarians and Cabinet officials just like everyone else who make mistakes — and amend them by deleting the erroneous tweets.

But good-government transparency groups said with political discourse increasingly shifting to Twitter’s 140-character forum, the company is doing too much to control the conversation.

“There is immense value in tracking deleted public tweets, which offered an intimate perspective on politicians and how they communicate with their constituents,” said Chris Gates, president of the Sunlight Foundation, who said what politicians delete is often just as important a statement as what they say.

U.S.-based Sunlight saw its version of Politwoops kneecapped by Twitter in May. This past weekend Twitter went further, closing sites in nearly 30 other countries by suspending their access to the deleted tweets data.

“The ability to delete one’s tweets — for whatever reason — has been a long-standing feature of Twitter for all users,” the company said in a statement defending its move.

It said it only recently discovered the sites that tracked the deleted messages, and moved to rein them in, saying they were breaking the rules by using a tool that identified deleted messages and highlighting them. The company’s agreement specifically says software developers are required to take someone’s account at its face, and cannot even note that a tweet “has been deleted.”

“We take our commitment to our users seriously and will continue to defend and respect our users’ voices in our product and platform,” Twitter said.

The Open State Foundation, a Netherlands-based organization that wrote the application used to track tweets in countries ranging from Egypt and Greece to the Vatican and the U.S., protested Twitter’s move, saying politicians are public figures and their words can be held to a different standard than others.

The Sunlight Foundation in the U.S. said with so much of political conversation shifting to platforms such as Twitter, private companies’ rules are beginning to play a worrying role in maintaining the debate.

“Our perspective is that elected officials and candidates are public figures who don’t have the same expectation of privacy as a private individual,” Mr. Gates said. “Unfortunately, what we’ve learned is that public tweets don’t belong to the public. Our shared conversations on ‘public’ platforms are increasingly taking place in privately owned and managed walled gardens, which means that the politics that occur in such conversations are subject to private rules.”

But Karen North, director of the Digital Social Media program at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication, said Twitter is a privately run community and is within its rights to act like one.

“People talk about Twitter sometimes as a public platform, but it’s not a utility. It’s a private business. They have the right to make whatever decisions they want,” she said.

She also said what the transparency groups are asking for would put Twitter in the impossible position of having to decide who is a private figure able to delete posts and who is a public figure. Ms. North said Twitter is trying to create a community that its members feel comfortable with, and the company feels the right to delete is a critical part of that.

“That’s their right. It’s their right because they want to create a good experience for their community members,” she said.

Even with automatic access to the deleted tweets shut down, good-government groups, journalists and opposition researchers can still take screen captures of tweets, and will still have those even if the messages are later deleted.

Most of the messages tracked by the Sunlight Foundation before its feed was shut down were innocuous. Some were so banal that it was impossible to guess why they had been deleted, while others were likely removed because of misspellings or grammatical errors that breached even the relaxed standards of Twitter’s 140-character limitations.

But some were pretty clearly rethinks.

A handful of politicians posted, then deleted, messages welcoming home Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after President Obama’s 2014 exchange that released five Taliban detainees in order to get the soldier back.

Then there was Rep. David Young, an Iowa Republican, whose account touted his “Yes” vote on an Amtrak funding bill earlier this year — even though he had actually voted against it.

And in one of the more fascinating examples, Rep. Steve Cohen posted, then deleted, a message to Victoria Brink during the 2013 State of the Union address. After reporters questioned the mysterious message, Mr. Cohen said he had recently discovered that the 25-year-old woman was his daughter — only to have paternity results disprove that.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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