Twitter Kills Off Political Gaffe-Tracker Politwoops

As more presidential aspirants this week announced their intention to jump into a crowded field of declared 2016 candidates, Twitter effectively shut down a popular service that in recent years has surfaced some of the most memorable gaffes in national politics.

Twitter issued a statement Wednesday to Gawker explaining that it was blocking Politwoops, a project of the government transparency non-profit Sunlight Foundation, from accessing its application programming interface, or API, which gives software developers access to the social media behemoth’s data.

“We strongly support Sunlight’s mission of increasing transparency in politics and using civic tech and open data to hold government accountable to constituents, but preserving deleted Tweets violates our developer agreement,” the statement read. “Honoring the expectation of user privacy for all accounts is a priority for us, whether the user is anonymous or a member of Congress.”

Politwoops has proved itself to be a powerful tool for journalists over the years, archiving everything from amusing typos to mini-scandals. There was the time New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tweeted about bongs thanks to autocorrect. There was the time Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D) “inadvertently” tweeted a photo of an Estonian model in bondage gear.

Perhaps most memorably, Politwoops surfaced seemingly flirty tweets sent during the 2013 State of the Union between Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) and a young woman he believed to be his daughter (Cohen would later learn through a DNA test that the woman was not, in fact, his daughter).

But the service’s last aggregated tweet appeared on May 15. Nicko Margolies, who leads the project for the Sunlight Foundation, first notified the followers that the service was experiencing an “outage” in a Friday blog post. Margolies later told Gawker that the outage was “related to the access to Twitter data” and that the Sunlight Foundation was attempting to resolve the problem with the social media company.

But as Gawker pointed out, and as some tech reporters noted when Politwoops first debuted in 2012, Politwoops’ very mission — to archive politicians’ deleted tweets in the spirit of transparency — appeared to violate the Twitter API’s developer agreement.

“Only surface Twitter activity as it surfaced on Twitter,” the agreement reads. “For example, your Service should execute the unfavorite and delete actions by removing all relevant Content, not by publicly displaying to other users that the Tweet is no longer favorited or has been deleted.”

Sunlight Foundation President Christopher Gates said in a blog post Thursday afternoon that Twitter did contact Politwoops about complying with the terms of its API when the project first launched. He said Twitter then approved of the project after the Sunlight Foundation explained what it hoped to accomplish with Politwoops and promised to have actual humans screen out “low-value” deleted tweets.

“We implemented this layer of journalistic judgment with blessings from Twitter and the site continued,” Gates said. “We are truly mystified as to what prompted the change of heart, and it’s deeply disappointing to see Twitter kill a project they had supported since 2012.”

“Clearly, something changed — and we’re not likely to ever know what it was,” he added.

This post has been updated.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Catherine Thompson is a senior editor for Talking Points Memo in New York City. She came to the site in 2013 and reported on national affairs. Previously, she worked as a research assistant to investigative reporter Wayne Barrett. She can be reached at catherine@talkingpointsmemo.com.

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