Twitter shutdown of apps for deleted tweets could give politicians new control

Twitter said the apps, Diplotwoops and Politwoops, violated its developer policies

Twitter iOS App
Credit: Martyn Williams

By effectively shutting down apps that showed politicians' deleted tweets, Twitter is giving politicians more control over public speech, and at the cost of transparency, some digital media experts said.

Over the weekend, Twitter shut down the access that two apps had to its API or application program interface, which let them show users tweets that had been deleted by politicians and other elected officials.

Twitter said the apps, Diplotwoops and Politwoops, violated the terms of its policies, which ban developers from publicly displaying deleted content. But the harm Twitter's actions pose to public transparency far outweigh the minor privacy implications -- if any -- of the services provided by those apps, some say.

"The exciting thing about platforms like Twitter when politicians and public officials are using them is that it can provide more accountability and more transparency," said Parker Higgins, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Twitter's action, he said, cripples that ideal. The EFF typically advocates for privacy online.

And, Twitter's action gives politicians and public figures a level of control they never had before, he said. 

Stories about deleted tweets often make it to the larger Web thanks in part to the aforementioned apps.

Last year, it was reported that Republican and Democratic members of Congress deleted tweets supportive of captured U.S. Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl, after the circumstances surrounding his disappearance were scrutinized.

Now, fewer of those sorts of stories may be published.

Higgins described apps like Politwoops and Diplotwoops as net forces for good.

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism school, said it's good that social media sites like Twitter and Facebook let their users delete posts.

But the apps Twitter shut down and others like them serve an important function, because they can help illuminate where public officials stand on important issues, especially if they want to take back what they said.

He acknowledged that Twitter's move may alienate journalists who use the site to report on and break news.

The apps' developers, meanwhile, railed against Twitter, arguing that their software served the public interest, particularly journalists, and helped keep elected officials accountable.

"What elected politicians publicly say is a matter of record," said Arjan El Fassed, director of the Open State Foundation, a nonprofit which launched Diplotwoops and the international version of Politwoops. "Even when tweets are deleted, it's part of parliamentary history," he wrote in a blog post on Monday.

Twitter's action might be easier to condone had the apps targeted the deleted tweets of everyday people.

"You could construct situations where the same behavior aimed at different targets would be a violation of privacy," said EFF's Higgins.

"There's a difference between an average, non-public figure using Twitter, and Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush using Twitter," he said.

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