clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Delete your tweets, rewrite history? The Politwoops controversy, explained.

Twitter has always limited use of its platform. But how much will it limit the record of online speech?
Twitter has always limited use of its platform. But how much will it limit the record of online speech?

Why did Twitter kill a beloved tool, Politwoops, that kept track of deleted tweets from politicians? Twitter's inspiration was unsatisfactorily simple: because it could. But when the social media platform decided to enforce a technical rule about its developer tools against a popular transparency project, it opened up a very nasty can of worms. As Philip Bump of the Washington Post remarked on the matter, "Twitter's internal logic is flawless. The result is ridiculous."

Twitter's shutdown of Politwoops was motivated by an interest in flushing hackers and bad actors out of its developer community, but the consequences are likely to create more problems than they solved —both for Twitter and for us.

Politwoops tracked politicians' deleted tweets

Here's how Politwoops and 30 similar projects worked, all of which were shut off from Twitter API (application program interface) access between May and August of this year. Using Twitter's API can be summarized as having the privilege to access all sorts of data (records) about any changes to Twitter accounts. The data is a record of change; the API is access to the library of that data.

Politwoops used Twitter's API access to monitor every time a tweet was deleted from specific accounts, such as, for example, a Twitter account run by a governor or senator's office. You could use this record to track any sort of account; it just happens to be that projects like Politwoops tracked politicians.

A sample of four deleted tweets from Muriel Bowser, mayor of Washington, DC.


When tweets were deleted, Twitter would send a "flag" or alert to third-party API users as an implied instruction to take down that tweet from wherever they used that tweet's information. But Politwoops was cleverly using the alerts as, essentially, a to-do list. Twitter should have been monitoring how third parties use its data to make sure its rules were being followed. It seems the company forgot to enforce its API rules the entire time Politwoops operated; Twitter declined to comment on the reason why.

Politwoops was violating Twitter's rule about deleted tweets

Twitter's deleted tweets rule is very simple: When the platform flagged deleted tweets, third parties with API access were supposed take the tweet down from their sites. Politwoops used its access in the opposite way Twitter intended, by using the alerts as a way to keep track of and share deleted tweets. So it was only a matter of time before Twitter had to make a decision about enforcing, or changing, its own rules.

In May, Twitter decided to stick to its guns with Politwoops, enraging many political reporters and offending government transparency advocates, who never expected the decision from Twitter, a company otherwise known for supporting transparency. The decision to cut off API access, however, wasn't broadly applied to international groups doing similar work until August. We don't know why Twitter took so long to enforce its decision between Politwoops and the similar international projects, nor why it decided to let them flourish in breach of developer usage terms in the first place.

This isn't the first time Twitter has had issues with transparency and third-party developers; as Matt Yglesias noted in June, "Twitter began to go astray when it began limiting third-party developers' access to the Twitter API in order to more fully dominate the advertising experience." Last year's Twitter's developer conference, Flight, was the second such conference the company has held since 2010.

How do we solve a problem like Maria('s content)?

The challenge that Twitter faced with Politwoops was one of how developers abide by the terms and conditions Twitter puts forth. A Twitter spokesperson defended the right to enforce these terms against services like Politwoops:

The ability to delete one's Tweets – for whatever reason – has been a long-standing feature of Twitter for all users. We built into our Developer Policy provisions a requirement that those accessing our APIs delete content that Twitter reports as deleted or expired.

From time to time, we come upon apps or solutions that violate that policy. Recently, we identified several services that used the feature we built to allow for the deletion of tweets to instead archive and highlight them. We subsequently informed these services of their noncompliance and suspended their access to our APIs.

We take our commitment to our users seriously and will continue to defend and respect our users’ voices in our product and platform.

The decision, however, opened the door for future content takedown policies regarding all deleted tweets displayed in any form, like, most simply, a screenshot. A screenshot taken on a laptop, in terms of recording content, the same thing as another similar screenshot accessible via API. If Twitter revokes access to developers who record deleted content, it could someday expand that thinking to rules that govern regular users on laptops or phones. Like you.

Let's play out this scenario a bit. Could your account be suspended for sharing a screenshot of a deleted tweet from a local government official? Maybe. Tweets are used everywhere: websites, Facebook pages, as images in Tumblr posts — the platform is so popular it's often found in pop culture references. Will Twitter ask Nicki Minaj to revoke mentions in songs about deleted tweets from, say, Meek Mill? Would Facebook threaten to delete your account if your profile picture displayed an embarrassing tweet from Hillary Clinton? How is the internet supposed to keep a Twitter code of honor when tweets have infused every other popular social media platform and website available today? This all gets messy very quickly, and a can-of-worms metaphor is quite apt here.

Twitter's laziness and vagueness in its application of its own rules is water under the bridge at this point. But Politwoops' shutdown points to a bigger question on the horizon: Who gets to regulate and change the record of online speech? Should the internet accurately reflect modern society, or should the internet be a revised record of our past? For insight on this, we must look across the Atlantic. These kinds of discussions are already happening in Europe, due to the "right to be forgotten" ruling.

Erasing internet flotsam is a foolish attempt to rewrite history

The internet, as fragmented as it is, is still an incredibly powerful machine of cultural influence and information. How we use the internet changes as our legal system evolves. One such evolution regarding online speech is last year's "right to be forgotten" decision by the European Union. If someone posts something about you that you find objectionable, a citizen of an EU member country (say, France) has the right to request that the objectionable content be forever hidden from Google's search results. And if you can't find it, it might as well not exist.

The "right to be forgotten" is the equivalent of having Google delete stuff off of the searchable internet on your behalf, which sounds concerningly similar to Twitter hiding deleted tweets on your behalf. We're slowly rewriting the internet's record of our activity by sweeping content under the rug one piece at a time. Twitter is a private company and can limit access to its service as it chooses; that doesn't mean it is not responsible for the incredible influence it has on online speech.

As Kanye West once remarked on the consequences of power, by deleting our past, we are at risk of becoming "lost in translation with a whole fucking nation." And that nation we risk losing touch with by photoshopping the record of our lives is ourselves. For a few brilliant months, the Sunlight Foundation hacked a loophole in Twitter and showed us things where nothing now exists. The internet's next challenge is to evolve beyond the right to be forgotten and secure for itself the right to be remembered.