A couple months ago, we wrote about Twitter shutting down Politwoops, a service from the Sunlight Foundation that highlighted tweets that politicians had posted… and then deleted. This was a useful tool for transparency, showing what kinds of tweets politicians delete. Frequently it was silly things like typos, but sometimes it caught and highlighted really ridiculous statements by politicians that they should have thought more about first. Twitters reasoning behind this made no sense at all at the time, claiming that it was about “honoring the expectation of user privacy.” That’s wrong. If you tweet publicly, there is no “expectation of privacy.” You have done something publicly.
This weekend, this whole situation got more attention, as Twitter similarly shut down a number of similar services, including foreign instances of Politwoops run by the Open State Foundation. Once again, Twitter gave a reason… that made absolutely no sense:
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.
This is worse than the original reason. First of all, that’s not terrifying at all. That’s how life is, every day. You say something, people hear it/see it and they can repeat it or call you out on it if they disagree. And you can have a discussion. And, of course, you can later change your words, admit you made a mistake, or, yes, delete your tweet. But people might notice that. And that’s fine. It’s not terrifying. There’s nothing “immutable” or “irrevocable” about Politwoops highlighting things that actually happened.
As for the next two lines, again, it makes no sense. There is nothing in Politwoops that makes one user “more deserving” of any ability than any other. Anyone can delete tweets. And anyone who saw the original tweet can call it out and highlight it. Yet, for whatever reason, Twitter has decided that it wants to give extra special protections to some users, by claiming that it’s an abuse to actually build a system to automate such things. This is the opposite of enabling free speech. It’s stifling it.
And, yes, deleting a tweet is an expression of the user’s voice — as is having someone highlight what you deleted. That’s how this works. This move is profoundly disappointing by Twitter — a company that regularly positions itself as a champion of free speech and being engaged in the political process.
Politicians say stupid stuff all the time (as does pretty much everyone). And people call them out on it. And no one ever argues that’s an invasion of their privacy… except, apparently, Twitter. Once again, this is a reminder of why we should be focused on protocols instead of platforms for the services that enable free expression. When we rely on platforms, we have to live by their rules.