Politwoops might be dead, but the tweets it collected will live on.
The service was devoted to archiving tweets published — and later deleted — by politicians in an effort to hold them accountable for their public statements. But the service violated Twitter’s developer guidelines, so the social network revoked Politwoops’ access to its APIs in 30 countries at the end of August, to the dismay of various human rights organizations from around the world.
Open State Foundation operated Politwoops in 35 countries throughout the Middle East and Europe. However, today the organization announced that it has uploaded the tweets it collected — some “1,106,187 deleted tweets by 10,404 politicians collected in 35 countries and parliaments over a period of five years” — to the Internet Archive where they are expected to remain available in perpetuity.
The group also said that rights organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch, and many others have indicated their support for Politwoops regaining access to Twitter’s APIs. These organizations are joined by “a number of politicians” who think the service provided value, even though it targeted public gaffes made by a group of which they’re a part.
Yet, when I spoke to Open State Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation, which ran the United States version of Politwoops before it was shut down earlier this year, both said there are no negotiations between them and Twitter. Open State Foundation director Arjan El Fassad did, however, tell me that he’s “exploring a number of legal and technical options” to keep Politwoops going.
Today’s update comes off as more of a symbolic gesture than anything. Maybe there is some value in surfacing deleted tweets from five years ago, but it seems like Politwoops was at its most useful when it was surfacing up-to-the-minute evidence of a politician’s mistakes. (Then again, I’ve never trawled through the million-plus trove of tweets, so there’s a chance I’m missing out on something.)
It’s a little bit like whac-a-tweet: Twitter might be able to stop Politwoops from gathering more information on a country-by-country basis, but Open State is showing that all the tweets it’s already collected won’t be thrust into oblivion. Sunlight Foundation did something similar with its tweet archive, only instead of uploading them to Internet Archive, it made them available on its website.
While that might show these groups’ dedication to their mission, it also helps justify Twitter’s point of view. The whole point of shutting down Politwoops was to make sure Twitter users — even those who happen to hold public office — could trust that their deleted tweets wouldn’t remain available elsewhere. All this is doing is showing that people really don’t control their information.
Of course, there are two sides to this debate. These groups have pointed out that they are specifically targeting public statements from elected officials, which should be held to a different standard than most of Twitter’s users. Others, like myself, have argued that it’s reasonable for people to expect that Twitter will advocate for their right to privacy regardless of their status.
Now, even though Politwoops is shambling along, that debate will live on thanks to the decision to make these tweets available via the Internet Archive. The tweets and the debate keep popping up no matter how many times they’re smacked down by the metaphorical mallet, and it looks like this particular game isn’t going to end any time soon.