The Open State Foundation is a digital transparency group that archives the deleted tweets of politicians, diplomats and embassies around the world. It has been revealed that 30 accounts owned by the Open State Foundation have been cut off by Twitter, with the social media company stating that tweeting would be “terrifying” if tweets could not be deleted without people having documentation of them.
“This weekend, Open State Foundation was informed by Twitter that it suspended API access to Diplotwoops and all remaining Politwoops sites in 30 countries,” a post on the website reads. “Politwoops automatically monitored politicians’ profiles 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.”
The post continues: “ After Twitter suspended API access for the US version of Politwoops for displaying deleted tweets of US lawmakers on May 15, Open State Foundation was still running Politwoops in 30 countries, including the European parliament.” The US version of Politwoops was started and run by the Sunlight Foundation.
In a message sent to Open State Foundation, a Twitter representative stated that the ability to delete one’s Tweet is, in fact, an expression of that person’s voice.
“As you may be aware, on June 3, 2015, Twitter suspended API access for the main US Politwoops app for displaying deleted Tweets in violation of our Developer Agreement and Policy,” the message reads. “This decision followed thoughtful internal deliberation and close consideration of a number of factors. Ultimately, Twitter’s decision was guided by the company’s core value to ‘Defend and respect the user’s voice.’ The ability to delete one’s Tweets – for whatever reason – has been a long-standing feature of the Twitter service. 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.”
The director of Open State Foundation Arjan El Fassed states: “What elected politicians publicly say is a matter of public record. 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.”
It is important to note that none of the archives created by the accounts were the result of illegal hacks, rather the compilation of public statements on social media by government officials. These were statements that people typed, and submitted, knowing fully that their words would be viewed by millions of people.
Twitter’s stance on this matter is puzzling, to put it mildly. The company asserts that they are doing what they can to ensure the protection of users’ voices, and yet they have been actively censoring many voices in an effort to make sure “nobody hears them.”
In a leaked internal memo dated February 2nd, then-CEO of Twitter Dick Costolo wrote: “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked for years.” After taking full personal responsibility, Costolo vowed: “We’re going to start kicking these people off right and left and making sure when they issue their ridiculous attacks, nobody hears them.”
On April 21, Twitter announced the testing of a product feature which would “identify suspected abusive Tweets and limit their reach.” Essentially, a mandatory “quality filter” was introduced that served to remove tweets determined to be abusive from a user’s notifications. Neither the sender nor the intended recipient would have any way of knowing whether a particular tweet had been filtered. The feature was supposed to take into account a wide range of signals and context that “frequently correlates with abuse including the age of the account itself, and the similarity of a Tweet to other content that our safety team has in the past independently determined to be abusive.” However, myself and others have discovered that even welcome tweets between those who mutually follow one another have been filtered based on unknown criteria. There is currently no way for any user to opt out of this feature.
In addition to the censorship of communication between individuals on Twitter, it was also discovered that on March 17, a woman by the name of Stephanie had her Twitter account suspended and was prompted to delete five tweets in order to reactivate and gain access to her account. These tweets appear to be neither abusive nor harassing, rather extremely critical of another woman on Twitter. That woman was Randi Harper, the CEO of an anti-online abuse organization who has repeatedly engaged in harassment, including telling people to set themselves on fire. Harper has also confirmed that she is “working with Twitter.”
On June 5 another user on Twitter, Dan Mapplethorphe, wrote three tweets in response to an article written by Cassie Sneide titled “I Have Been Sitting on Manspreaders For The Last Month and I Have Never Felt More Free.” In the article, Sneide claimed she was sitting on complete strangers who were guilty of “manspreading,” the act of a man sitting with his legs spread apart in a public setting. She also admitted to kicking a teenager who did not make room for her to pass. Mapplethorphe’s tweets, which he called jokes, included comments about Sneider giving “free lapdances” in response to her article. Just like Stephanie, Dan was forced to delete these tweets in order to regain access to his account.
It seems curious then that Twitter is now working so diligently in protecting user voices when they have spent months attempting to limit the ways in which they can be used. Public figures, including politicians, have a lower expectation of privacy than average citizens. In this particular situation, these figures made deliberate choices when they publicly posted their thoughts, and had no reasonable expectation that they would not be held accountable for those thoughts simply because they were later deleted.
There is no indication of what this now-established precedent could mean for Twitter users who utilize services like archive.today and tweetsave.com when archiving specific tweets, particularly those that are seen as abusive, harassing, or threatening.
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.”
As for the Open State Foundation, they don’t intend to give up without a fight.
“Open State Foundation will continue to explore and engage with others to keep public messages by elected politicians visible. The public has rights guaranteed under many constitutions to access information that was made at least temporarily available to the public.”
Note: The author discloses casual internet friendships with two people referenced in this article. Although these friendships exist online, the author feels as though her contact with these parties has been substantial enough to disclose. The author further discloses a bias against Randi Harper, who was also mentioned in this article.
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