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Website Tracks Deleted Tweets

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. Denny Rehberg has made good use of the Sunlight Foundation’s Politwoops site by purposely deleting tweets that he wants his constituents to read.

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In an age when many politicians are struggling to find social media fluency and potential Twitter scandals lurk on every keyboard, some Members of Congress are trying to use the power and adaptability of social media to overpower its potential disadvantages.

The new site Politwoops, which the Sunlight Foundation launched Wednesday, captures the tweets that politicians delete from their Twitter accounts. Politwoops quickly revealed some contentious tweets and inflicted at least one initial casualty, but shortly after its launch, several political operatives began using the site to advance their own agendas.

Politicians are using the platform to make sure their tweets are seen. Thanks to Politwoops, doing so is now as easy as hitting “delete.”

The launch of Politwoops drew national media attention within a few hours of its launch, and Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) has been prolific in making use of the site. Of several deleted tweets from @DennyRehberg appearing on Politwoops, a message from Thursday reads, “If you think twitter mistakes on #politwoops are bad, just wait until you see the regulatory mistakes of the Obama Administration!”

Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) then tweeted and deleted from the account @DavidSchweikert: “#politwoops saves lost tweets, now if we can just get President Obama to save lost jobs …”

He also tweeted: “Wish #politwoops would hold Obama and Holder accountable for their missing facts on #FastandFurious just as it does missing tweets.”

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) followed suit, deleting the tweet: “We need to delete excessive govt regulations, spending-driven debt, & tax hikes that hurt #smallbiz #4jobs http://t.co/aWvvft0z #politwoops.”

Rehberg, who is running for the Senate this year, confirmed that he was using Politwoops to get his messages to the public. He said he believes that creative innovations in social media increase government transparency and accountability — the main goal of the Sunlight Foundation.

“Where else can you get a message out by erasing it?” he added.

Rehberg’s, Boehner’s and Schweikert’s actions stand in contrast to those of Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), whose deleted May 18 tweet has attracted the most attention on Politwoops. The site released a previously undetected tweet from Miller’s account that read: “Was Obama born in America?” with a link to a public opinion poll about Obama’s birthplace on Miller’s Facebook account. Miller’s account, @CongJeffMiller, was deleted shortly after the launch of the Politwoops site.

Tom Lee, director of Sunlight Labs, didn’t directly link the deletion of Miller’s account to the launch of Politwoops but said, “My understanding is that Congressman Miller’s office was contacted by a reporter, so I have no firsthand knowledge. Obviously, it’s suggestive.”

Miller’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Beyond Gotcha

Politwoops works by tracking the application programming interface feeds of Members of Congress and presidential candidates. When a tweet is deleted, a signal is sent to the program marking the now-deleted tweet.

Lee says that, as far as he knows, no deleted tweets have gone unpublished on Politwoops (although a system crash led to the loss of some data before the May 30 launch).

The tweets posted on Politwoops display the time the originals were deleted and how long they were up before being taken down. The site also includes screenshots of the destinations of any hyperlinks contained within the original tweet.

Politwoops is based on Dutch code that runs several other platforms in different countries. Sunlight has been running the U.S. site for several months but waited to go public until it felt confident in its performance and database.

When a Twitter account is in the public eye, it is unlikely that a major misfire will go unnoticed. When ex-Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) released the notorious tweet containing a lewd self-portrait in late May 2011, media organizations pounced on the message within the day despite the rapid deletion of the tweet and his claim that his account had been hacked. Weiner’s resignation followed less than three weeks later.

Subtler exchanges on Twitter have also come under public scrutiny. In 2010, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin “favorited” a tweet from conservative media personality Ann Coulter that suggested President Barack Obama was Muslim and a terrorist. Palin later claimed to have unintentionally favorited the tweet.

Politwoops now guarantees that politicians — as well as staffers operating the accounts — cannot afford to have second thoughts about their tweets.

Lee, however, claims he does not see the tool as merely “playing gotcha.” He considers all tweets part of the public record and that, in many cases, bringing the deleted tweets to light has a humanizing effect.

“It’s politicians talking about TV or date night with their wives,” Lee said. Politwoops might embarrass some, but he said it also “provides glimpses into the candid thoughts of political figures, or in some cases, their staffers.”

In the past, Sunlight’s technology has made it possible for the public to look at the “nuts and bolts” of governance. A past project, CapitolWords.org, allowed users to compare the number of the times that Members of Congress used certain words and phrases. Lee said Sunlight is interested in the “quality and sophistication of the conversation, increasingly happening directly, between politicians and their constituents.”

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