Over the weekend, Twitter informed the Open State Foundation that it was suspending API access to all remaining Politwoops sites in 30 countries around the world.
In May, Twitter shut down the U.S. version run by the Sunlight Foundation, a deeply disappointing choice that eliminated a genuine tool for public accountability.
A statement from the Open State Foundation read:
Politwoops began in the Netherlands in 2010 at a hackathon. Since then it has been further developed by Open State Foundation, turning it into a useful tool for journalists and spreading it to 30 countries, from Egypt, Tunisia, Greece, the UK and France to the Vatican and the European Parliament. In 30 countries, it automatically monitored politicians’ profiles (elected members of national parliaments) for deleted tweets and made them visible. In 2014 Open State Foundation launched Diplotwoops, screening deleted messages by diplomats and embassies around the world. These sites have been extensively used and cited by journalists around the world.
“What elected politicians publicly say is a matter of public record,” said Arjan El Fassed, director of the Open State Foundation. “Even when tweets are deleted, it’s part of parliamentary history. These tweets were once posted and later deleted. 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 2012, Sunlight started the U.S. version of Politwoops. At the time, Twitter informed us that the project violated its terms of service, but we explained the goals of the project and agreed to create a human curation workflow to ensure that the site screened out corrected low-value tweets, like typos as well as incorrect links and Twitter handles. We implemented this layer of journalistic judgment with blessings from Twitter and the site continued. In May, Twitter reversed course and shut down Sunlight’s version of Politwoops.
In response to the news, Sunlight Foundation President Chris Gates said:
We’re disappointed that Twitter has decided to double down on its decision to kill Politwoops around the world. There is immense value in tracking deleted public tweets, which offered an intimate perspective on politicians and how they communicate with their constituents. Our perspective is that elected officials and candidates are public figures, who don’t have the same expectation of privacy as a private individual. Unfortunately, what we’ve learned is that public tweets don’t belong to the public. Our shared conversations on “public” platforms are increasingly taking place in privately owned and managed walled gardens, which means that the politics that occur in such conversations are subject to private rules.
Technology is creating new and imaginative ways to support a healthy civic discourse, but we clearly have work left to do to determine how our expectations for public discourse will play out in privately owned and managed spaces.