Early last week, news broke that Twitter shut down a network of 30 sites devoted to publishing deleted tweets from politicians around the world. The sites — collectively known as Politwoops — were managed by the Open State Foundation (OSF), which stated that Twitter suspended their API access on Friday, August 21.
Using Twitter’s API allows one with access to see all kinds of data about any changes to Twitter accounts. Politwoops was using its API access to monitor every time a tweet was erased from specific accounts from political figures. When tweets were marked as deleted, Twitter would send a ‘flag’ as an implicit instruction to take down that tweet from wherever they used that tweet’s information. Politwoops essentially turned these alerts into a to-do list and, for some reason, Twitter wasn’t paying attention to how its data was being used.
“Imagine how nerve-racking — terrifying, even — tweeting would be if it was immutable and irrevocable?” Twitter reportedly told the OSF. “No one user is more deserving of that ability than another. Indeed, deleting a tweet is an expression of the user’s voice.”OSF’s director, Arjan El Fassed, countered publicly: “What politicians say in public should be available to anyone. This is not about typos, but it is a unique insight on how messages from elected politicians can change without notice.”In June, the U.S. arm of Politwoops was shut down, but this latest decision by Twitter has had a global effect on the organization. The Diplotwoops site, which archives deleted tweets from diplomats and was “extensively used and cited by journalists around the world,” according to the OSF, was also closed.
So is this a matter of political accountability—or is online retraction a basic right for all? Should bad judgement haunt us forever? And how do we decide who can and cannot write in the internet’s ‘delible’ ink?
While “the right to be forgotten” has gone before the courts, we are learning that ‘delete’ is largely an illusion in a digital world. There is no certainty of a take-back for anyone, and mistakes can be unearthed faster than you can say Ashley Madison.
There is a fear that the death of these transparency projects will allow public figures to rewrite history—but for every privacy wall or regulation, there are traces, screen caps, and hacks. And while we attempt to define and defend boundaries in the Wild West that is the internet, ‘sent’ propels moronic and insightful commentary at the same velocity.