Twitter is happy to help fund politicians -- but it won't hold them to account

It looks like Twitter is happy to help fund politicians — but it won’t help hold them to account.

Earlier this week, the company announced that users will be able to make donations to politicians and candidates directly through Twitter.

The move comes after Twitter hired three lobbying firms in Washington D.C. to better represent its political interests, and also plugged features designed to help integrate the social network deeper into the political process.

But less than a month ago, Twitter killed off one of the most useful political uses of its platform — holding politicians accountable for what they say.

Wave goodbye to Politwoops

Politwoops, originally developed by Dutch non-profit the Open State Foundation, automatically monitored politicians’ Twitter feeds and republished any tweets that were later deleted. There were dozens of versions around the world, ranging from the European Parliament to the Vatican.

Often, the deleted tweets they flagged up just contained typos. But other times, they revealed politicians trying to distance themselves from prior statements or shift their position on an issue. In one high-profile incident, Politwoops was able to highlight half a dozen politicians welcoming a US soldier and former Taliban captive back to the US — and then deleting their tweets after the case became politically charged.

In June, Twitter banned the US version of Politwoops — and then in August banned all 30 other versions of the service around the world. The justification? That Politwoops violated the social network’s developer agreement, and undermined politicians’ expectations of privacy.

The first part of that, at east, is certainly true. The company’s Developer Agreement & Policy clearly states that “your service should … not publicly [display] to other users that the Tweet is no longer favorited or has been deleted.”

“Imagine how nerve-racking — terrifying, even — tweeting would be if it was immutable and irrevocable?” Twitter said in a statement. “No one user is more deserving of that ability than another. Indeed, deleting a tweet is an expression of the user’s voice.”

Are politicians normal people?

But critics have argued that politicians, as public figures, have a different — lesser — expectation of privacy than others on the platform. Back in June, Philip Bump wrote in The Washington Post that “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.”

After Politwoops was banned globally, a coalition of human rights groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch, Open State Foundation, Access, and others wrote an open letter to Twitter calling for Politwoops’ reinstatement. “Twitter’s reasoning conflates transparency and accountability with privacy,” the letter said. “We agree that when users decide to delete tweets they are engaging in expression — but add that the public has a compelling interest in the expression of public officials. Recognising this public interest, courts have long held that public officials do not receive the same treatment for privacy … In this case, the citizen’s right to freedom of expression — which includes access to information — outweighs the official’s right to a retroactive edit.”

Twitter has so far refused to restore Politwoops’ API access. Business Insider has reached out to the company for comment, and will update when it responds.

Twitter might be avoiding difficult decisions

It may be that Twitter — which is currently struggling to grow its user base — wants the benefits of political engagement, without any of the problems. Alongside its announcement of political donations, the social network also plugged its other political tools, including country-specific notifications reminding people to register to vote, and special tweets to help collect email addresses for campaigns.

On September 11, The Hill reported that Twitter has hired three lobbying firms in Washington D.C. It will have 10 lobbyists representing its interests.

So as Twitter doubles down on its political presence, why is it refusing to help hold politicians accountable? Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Parker Higgins’ “cynical” take on the Politwoops ban is that it is “harder to lobby folks who’ve embarrassed themselves on your site.”

A more likely answer might be that Twitter doesn’t want to put itself in a position where it is forced to make difficult judgement calls. For decades, journalists have had to decide what is and isn’t “newsworthy.” To borrow Philip Bump’s analogy: A politician’s affair is noteworthy, a greengrocer’s affair is not.

If Twitter were to allow Politwoops, it would almost certainly not allow it to monitor all users for deleted tweets — again, a politician’s deleted tweet is newsworthy, but a greengrocer’s isn’t. But between those two black-and-white extremes, there are a thousand shades of grey. How about candidates who have never previously held public office? Or activists? Or politicians who have since retired from government life?

However Twitter drew that line, it would almost certainly face criticism, as journalists constantly do. This absolutist approach to its rules helps it avoid such difficult judgement calls, and lets it maintain its position as an impartial platform.

Twitter covers its back. And political transparency suffers.

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