Column: What happens on Twitter stays on Twitter in politics

U.S. Army Soldier Bowe Bergdahl was released from captivity as part of a prisoner exchange with a Taliban-affiliated group on May 31, 2014.

Congressional representative Jim Renacci promptly tweeted, “So glad to hear that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is coming home safely. He’s a true American hero.” Renacci’s words were echoed on Twitter by two other congressmen and an aspiring Iowa senator.

However, as the media began investigating the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance and capture, the question arose as to whether he was a “true American hero” after all, when it was revealed that he had deserted his unit prior to being captured.

All four of the supportive tweets were deleted merely three days after they were posted.

The ability to go back, read and report on those deleted tweets stems from a service called Politwoops, which used to archive tweets by politicians and monitor the ones that had been deleted. The service allowed for greater transparency by elected officials and monitored when they went back on their word.

In May, Twitter banned the U.S. version of Politwoops from access to their API—application program interface—which prevented the services from continuing to archive the tweets.

Twitter shut down the remaining Politwoops sites in over 27 countries in August, along with sister site Diplotwoops, which monitored tweets from diplomats around the world.

In moving forward with the shutdown, Twitter cited violations of their terms of service, which prohibit the public display of deleted content.

The Open State Foundation, the organization that runs the sites, published a press release that included a statement from Twitter executives.

The executives reminded the OSF to “Imagine how nerve-wracking—terrifying, even—tweeting would be if it was immutable and irrevocable? No one user is more deserving of that ability than another.”

The argument of the OSF along with 17 other human rights and transparency groups who signed an open letter to Twitter, however, is that what politicians say should be a matter of public record, and that, more importantly, transparency in politics should not be juxtaposed with privacy.

The OSF’s director, Arjan El Fassed, said, “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.”

This insight is incredibly important. After all, politicians have certainly reaped the benefits of social media. Entire campaign strategies revolve around the effective targeting of tweets to model a particular image.

However, this becomes extremely dangerous when it’s a one-way street. As long as politicians utilize the power of the Internet to amplify their message, they should remain accountable for that message.

Viputheshwar Sitaraman, a Molecular and Cellular Biology student at UA, and co-founder of new social media startup, KorkBoard, agrees.

“As much as Twitter is a social media platform, it’s also an incredibly large data set of 140 character-long ideas organized in a sophisticated network of accounts and hashtags,” Sitaraman said. “A wide variety of professionals, from epidemiologists to media marketers, have recognized and utilized the power of this big data. The problem is that when any chunk of this data disappears, it begins to lose its significance.”

It’s also important to note that Twitter—and social media at large—has allowed citizens worldwide to take social and political action.

This is a branding that Twitter is all too happy to accept. For example, Twitter executives publicly acknowledged their role in the Arab Spring when citizens planned protests and spread political news through social media.

It’s hypocritical, then, for Twitter to remove a similar feature, solely to keep politicians comfortable.

They shouldn’t be comfortable. They should be accountable, and without services like Politwoops and Diplotwoops, they may never need to take responsibility for what they post online.


Follow Maddie Pickens on Twitter.


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