Image: Esther Vargas/Flickr
Politwoops, the site that aggregated deleted tweets from politicians, is coming back after being blocked by Twitter in May. It’s a move that signals Twitter’s efforts to define what free speech means on its platform, and one of a few recent decisions that show maybe, just maybe, it’s actually listening to its users.
Created during a hackathon in 2010, Politwoops was launched officially in 2012 by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group dedicated to government transparency. It was designed to be a way of keeping politicians accountable for the things they publish online, even if they’re deleted after just a few seconds. The site was indiscriminate: it pulled in tweets deleted for typos alongside ones banished after reconsideration. As the site wrote in a “eulogy” for the project in May: “The site isn't just about blunders, but rather revealing a more intimate perspective on our politicians and how they communicate with their constituents.”
In May, the US version of the site’s access to Twitter’s API was unexpectedly suspended. By August, Twitter decided to pull the plug on the project completely, blocking access to its API for Politwoops in the US along with similar projects in 30 other countries.
“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 company said at the time, according to the Open State Foundation, one of the groups that developed the tool internationally.
Some of the last tweets published on Politwoops before the site lost access to Twitter's API in May. Image: Politwoops
Now, Politwoops is suddenly back. In a blog post Thursday titled “Holding public officials accountable with Twitter and Politwoops,” Twitter announced it had worked with the Sunlight Foundation and others to reinstate its access to the API and resuscitate Politwoops around the world. The site still hasn't updated since May, but will presumably launch again in the new year. The Twitter post quoted CEO Jack Dorsey who, at a company conference in October, called out Politwoops specifically as a tool that ought to be supported.
“We have a responsibility to continue to empower organizations that bring more transparency to public dialogue, such as Politwoops,” Dorsey said. “We need to make sure we are serving all these organizations and developers in the best way, because that is what will make Twitter great.”
It’s good news for advocates of government transparency, but the decision—and sentiment behind it—seems like a complete 180 from the message the company relayed just a few months earlier. Just like a regretted tweet hastily deleted a few moments later, the company seems to be backpedaling on its decision. It’s all part of a struggle the company is facing to balance privacy, transparency, and free speech on its platform. On one hand, users are demanding protection from harassment and abuse on the platform, which may mean banning users. On the other hand, everyone wants transparency, whether it be from public officials on the site through Politwoops or more clear reporting of what kind of requests the NSA makes of the site. It’s no easy feat.
The company is clearly making efforts to strike this balance and define what free speech and privacy mean on Twitter. Throughout the year Twitter has been rolling out tools to try to battle harassment, and earlier this week updated its rules to more clearly define what constitutes abuse on the site. Twitter also spent the year pursuing a lawsuit (which was ultimately thrown out) against the federal government to allow it to publicly report any national security requests it receives. The reinstatement of Politwoops is really just the latest move to define what kind of platform Twitter wants to be.
But in a way, Twitter can never win this fight. The platform means different things to different users. Prioritizing transparency will often come with a loss of privacy—and vice versa. There might not be a balance. Its best bet is to listen to what its users are crying out for and these year-end decisions seem to signal the company is doing just that. There’s plenty of work to be done: Twitter is still an unsafe space for droves of users. So let’s start shouting, while we’ve (possibly) got Twitter’s ear.