Since the U.S. version of Politwoops began nearly three years ago, it’s enabled journalists to sift through retracted public statements of politicians and, in the words of The Atlantic, added “another layer of accountability to the churning machine of political communications.”
But political communications didn’t always churn away online. Up until 2008, it was against the rules for members of Congress to post “official communications” on nonofficial websites, such as Twitter or YouTube. In a report in 2007, the Open House Project, a collaborative reform initiative hosted by the Sunlight Foundation, proposed a rules update to allow Congress to use social media. After many discussions advocating for the change on Capitol Hill, we launched a site called Let Our Congress Tweet to showcase public support. Later in 2008, the Web-use guidelines were overhauled to allow members of Congress to join any social media service they wanted. The updated rules changed evaluations of official communications to focus on the communications’ content, rather than the location of that content.
When reacting to the news about the rules change, my colleague John Wonderlich wrote, “The revisions should cause a renaissance in official political Web-use, with eager new media staff and savvy Members now able to confidently engage with their constituents.” And boy oh boy was he right.
Today, members of Congress race to try out the latest apps to communicate with the public online. While the early-adopters jump between whatever service is trending, there are few social media services that have spread so deeply through the halls of Congress as Twitter. According to data gleaned from Politwoops and Sunlight’s Congress API, there are only two members of Congress who do not appear to have either an official or campaign Twitter account: Del. Gregorio Sablan, D-Northern Mariana Islands, and Del. Madeleine Bordallo, D-Guam. Or put another way: Every member of the Senate and nearly every member of the House is on Twitter.
The Sunlight Foundation is very much in favor of representatives communicating with constituents and the media, but we’re also committed to building free tools to assist reporters and citizens keep government accountable. That’s where Politwoops comes in. The project simply archives public communications that were removed. The tweets in Politwoops were once live and viewable by anyone on Twitter and other third-party platforms for at least some amount of time. Sunlight is committed to making these public communications available to anyone who wants to see them, rather than those who were lucky enough to be online at the right moment. We think it’s a powerful tool for evaluations of modern political communication. According to The Washington Post, Politwoops “has become an invaluable accountability resource.”