The U.S. version of Politwoops is sadly enduring an outage that’s causing a lack of new deletions on the site, but it’s a good opportunity to review the reporting the project has enabled.
From the moment the project launched exactly three years ago tomorrow, journalists recognized the importance and usefulness of tracking messaging changes from politicians. The Washington Post wrote, “The Sunlight Foundation is doing all of us a major favor and archiving politicians’ deleted tweets,” and The Atlantic said, “Politwoops could be a gold mine for reporters and for anyone else with an interest in keeping officials accountable. There will always be follow the money; now there’s follow the tweet.” Chris Moody, then an ABC reporter who is now at CNN, tweeted, “Politwoops is really the best website ever.” Later that year, TIME Magazine agreed, naming the site one of the best websites of 2012.
It wasn’t just journalists who quickly embraced Politwoops — politicians accepted the new tool and used it to delete messages on purpose and explain their message changes. Former Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., who was included in the project during his unsuccessful Senate campaign, described Politwoops to The Hill as, “The great thing about social media – Facebook, Twitter – is that it not only increases government transparency but also access and accountability. It’s also a medium that encourages innovation and creativity. I mean, where else can you get a message out by erasing it? How cool is that?” When asked about a tweet that was changed, Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, responded to me, “I thought it was a more succinct way of expressing what I wanted to convey. Thanks for asking and for promoting transparency!”
There are many examples of reporting enabled by Politwoops over the past three years, but here are a few of the more notable ones. When some news networks announced a Supreme Court decision incorrectly, Politwoops collected the revoked reactions of politicians, and The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal covered their mood swings. The Associated Press, Washington Times and many others were able to cover the tumultuous political messaging battle over the terms of the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl by the Taliban. Slate utilized the extensive Politwoops archive to ask Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., about a deleted tweet to a Facebook poll asking if Obama was born in the United States. Miller reacted by deleting his entire Twitter account, only to later return to the service.
Even some of the more bizarre examples of reporting on deletions found in Politwoops have yielded lessons and discussions of larger issues. After being hounded by reporters about a deleted tweet to a young woman, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., deleted another bizarre tweet to bait further media attention for an event he wanted to promote. In a statement he said, “Knowing how some in the media report deleted Politwoops as nefarious, it occurred to me that a perfectly innocent, factually-correct tweet, once deleted, would receive great media attention.” When the official account for Gov. Jack Markell, D-Del., deleted a tweet with an image of a woman wearing leather straps, his spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal, “The lessons here are not to compose tweets too quickly and there is a lot of odd stuff on the Internet.” We hope to get Politwoops back up and running so politicians can learn new lessons and reporters can continue to cover the messages politicians remove.