Social media is often dumb, trite and useless, much like the things we say out loud and the things we do in-person. But on rare occasions, something important and revelatory can happen -- if we notice it.
Gawker reported Wednesday evening that Twitter pulled the plug on Politwoops, a site created by the Sunlight Foundation to track things that American politicians had tweeted and then deleted. Often what Politwoops captured were deleted typos or accidental re-tweets. On occasion, it was something more intriguing.
Last summer, for example, Politwoops automatically logged politicians deleting tweets of praise about Bowe Bergdahl, the soldier held hostage in Afghanistan. After his negotiated release, questions arose about Bergdahl's disappearance which cast him in a different political light. (Earlier this year, he was charged with desertion.) Without Politwoops, this bit of whitewashing might have gone unnoticed, given that many of the tweets were days old.
To capture these tweets, Politwoops relied on Twitter's application program interface, a sort of socket for programmers to use to run automated tools. In this case, Politwoops would catalog new tweets from politicians, and, if one was deleted, publish it. Human involvement was minimal.
"[P]reserving deleted Tweets violates our developer agreement," Twitter told Gawker, explaining why Politwoops was no longer working. "Honoring the expectation of user privacy for all accounts is a priority for us, whether the user is anonymous or a member of Congress." In other words, Twitter had a rule, and Politwoops broke it.
You can probably see the problem built into that last statement. An anonymous user is not a public figure; a member of Congress is. The former has a high expectation of privacy, as what he says and does is not newsworthy. The latter -- according to a lot of legal precedent -- doesn't enjoy the same privilege. If Bill Clinton has an affair with a staffer, that's more newsworthy than if the guy who manages your grocery store does.
It is possible to capture errors made by politicians on social media without relying on automated tools. Weiner was caught, you'll remember, because someone who was suspicious of his online behavior was watching him closely. But Politwoops acted something like a campaign tracker: always there, always paying attention. Sometimes that can yield fake, biased news. Sometimes it can yield something that changes a political campaign. We need more services like Politwoops (as I've argued before), not fewer.
But the rationale for shuttering Politwoops is flawed anyway. Twitter constantly makes judgment calls about people that would be fairly trivial to extend to other arenas of its work. I am verified on the service (um, as of writing), because Twitter has (for some reason) decided that I am worth validating. My tweets, in other words, are granted a higher status in the system.
I would hold that the tweets of Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz and Anthony Weiner should be as well.