Advertisement

Patt Morrison asks: Politwoops' Derek Willis on the value of unearthing deleted political tweets

Patt Morrison asks: Politwoops' Derek Willis on the value of unearthing deleted political tweets
A screengrab of the new @POTUS Twitter account for President Donald Trump. (Associated Press)

Not all tweets are deleted equally. Politicians' trashed tweets can have a second life. Derek Willis runs Politwoops for the nonprofit investigative journalism operation ProPublica, and he retrieves politicians' and candidates' scrubbed tweets to give us a better glimpse into their online selves. President Donald Trump is one of the world's best-known tweeters, and he's been known to delete his now and again. Some elected officials' deletions are typos; others can be more substantive, and Willis makes the case that those 140-character bits the political tweeters decided they didn't want us to see can be as revealing as the ones they did.

Advertisement

What is Politwoops?

It's an archive of deleted tweets made by politicians and public officials. Originally it was created in the Netherlands. It was a Dutch project to track deleted tweets from politicians there, and the idea was such a good one that versions of it have popped up in other countries around the world.

Advertisement

The U.S. version was started by the folks at the Sunlight Foundation, which is a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., dedicated to transparency. A couple of months ago, they asked us if we would like to take the project over.  The folks at ProPublica said sure, because it is a transparency project and we like transparency. Moving forward, we want to be able to show people and tell people what their politicians are doing on Twitter, especially when they delete tweets that they maybe regret.

What's the value of deleted tweets?

It's a good question, because many of these deletions are typos. They are things where, like, Oops, I spelled someone's name wrong, or, I got the verb tense wrong. I personally have done that many times on Twitter.  So part of the value of that is that politicians are just like you and me when they use Twitter, in the sense that they make mistakes. But there's another level that I think does actually provides a little bit more value, and that's that Twitter, like many other social media platforms, is a place where people will say things sometimes without really thinking them through, or a rush of emotion, and then later reconsider. Tweets that get deleted provide a little bit of a window into this thinking, or the state of mind of somebody who posted it.

When a politician does delete a tweet — and it's a permanent deletion, not a correction — I think sometimes there might be an interesting insight or a story there.

Advertisement

One example is politicians who deleted their tweets who were in favor of the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan after there were concerns about his past actions.

That's a great example. In fact, that even occurred off of Twitter; people deleted press releases! You figure, Oh, this is what I feel, or, my position on this particular matter is — then later on, you might have some more information and you might figure, Well that's not the greatest thing to have sitting out there, and you go back and remove it. I think that does tell you something about how a lawmaker views his or her job and how they perform it.

Twitter took down Politwoops a while back, saying it violated the terms of service by retrieving these deleted tweets. What happened to bring it back?

It is a violation of the terms of service — at the time it was.  When people complained, I think they did start to pay attention to services like this that have cropped up around the world, and then said, It's against our terms of service. So the folks at Sunlight went back to Twitter after a little interval and said, Look, we understand the terms of service, but we think there's a unique case here — and in particular when it comes to candidates for political office or for elected officials —  that the public actually has an interest in seeing their statements and how they use a social media platform like this.

They made the case effectively, and Twitter has allowed this bit of carve-out. So we can track people and store their tweets as long as they are a candidate or an elected official or appointed official for some posts, and then once they cease to be that, we have to stop tracking them and storing their deleted tweets.

I read that 79% of Americans are not on Twitter, so maybe it isn't exactly vox pop.

Oh, it's definitely not. I think as much as members of media — and I plead guilty to this myself  — as much as we like to think Twitter is a window into our society, it's a window into a certain small portion of the society. However, I would say that more and more politicians use these services, and use Twitter in particular now. I think the president is a great example of that.

For those people who do use it, it's the national id. What do you see as Twitter's role?

Advertisement

I think in some respects it can be a window onto our national psyche, but that's probably a little too simplistic a reading. To me, the value of Twitter is very often in its ability to connect you to other people who share a very specific interest. I think of Twitter as a bunch of niche audiences that are all hanging around together. I have found many folks who are experts in fields that I probably would not have encountered otherwise had I not been looking for them and had I not been on Twitter.

Donald Trump seems to be the poster boy for Twitter. What do you see as the nature of his Twitter behavior?

A lot of politicians talk about using social media to bypass the traditional media, as they might call it. I think Donald Trump probably does that as well or better than anybody else.

Many of the folks who use social media in politics do so with sort of a veneer of, This is my official account and you're going to hear about the things would expect an officeholder or member of Congress to post to Twitter about. A lot of people might think that probably doesn't reflect the personality of that person very much.

But Trump is a tremendous exception to that. I think people gravitate to his Twitter feed because they think it is a pretty accurate extension of his personality.

What tweets has he deleted? Surely you have an archive of those.

We do, and like most, this is the one place where he's much like a lot of other politicians, particularly in the last year, where he will quickly clean up the typos, and there are many typos; when you tweet a lot, you also increase the chances of you tweeting out the wrong name.

What he has been deleting and not replacing or fixing are, for example, when he retweets other users, which he does occasionally.  He also occasionally deletes tweets that I really can't explain. After the election he or someone on his staff went back and deleted a tweet about "Duck Dynasty" or "Duck Dynasty" stars that was complimentary of him, made in September or October, and I'm not sure why.

I will say that for someone who uses Twitter as often as he does and in the manner that he does, frankly, you might have expected more deletions, because there are things he put on Twitter back before he was a presidential candidate that many politicians probably would be uncomfortable having.

Advertisement

I'm sure there are many people tracking Donald Trump's tweets, but there are hundreds of members of Congress and thousands of politicians and candidates across the country. How do they get tracked by Politwoops? Do you have a crowdsourcing network out there?

We do, in the sense that we regularly have folks email us and suggest, Hey, you should be tracking this person or that person.

We went through and made a list of all the new members of Congress and went out to try to try to find their Twitter accounts, their official accounts and their campaign accounts. Then we simply load them into our database and the checking goes on automatically. We don't have everybody from the moment at which they become a public official, so it's not fully automated, but we do try to get them into our system as fast as possible so we can start seeing what they're tweeting about.

Have you seen the proliferation of fake tweets, which are, as I've seen them, screen shots of what appear to be tweets but in fact are fabricated?

As long as you can post images to Twitter, this is going to be a problem.  As long as there's been an Internet, there's been an issue that you can fake a lot of things on the Internet.

I don't think Twitter is immune from that.  There are some solutions, but they're fairly draconian. The easiest way to prevent fake images is to prevent all images, but I doubt Twitter is really going to shut that off any time soon.

Is Twitter here to stay, or do you think it's going to lose its cachet, be superseded by something else?

I wish I knew. I suspect that something like Twitter is probably here to stay. Twitter is certainly not a perfect service. There are things that go on on twitter that are pretty horrendous and horrific in terms of abuse, and I could envision a time where there would be a tipping point where people say, We can't do this, this is unacceptable.

To the extent it stays around, it will probably always be somewhat niche, in the sense that you said before — most people aren't on Twitter. I think it has an appeal for certain folks, and for other folks there's literally no appeal whatsoever.

The great Twitter debate of this election season is whether Donald Trump should stop tweeting.  I think I know where you might be going on this.

If he's going to make policy pronouncements on Twitter, as a journalist I'll take those. I think anything that gives us a little insight into how the presidency works and how he thinks is valuable information, when it comes down to it. There are some tweets in there that I probably wouldn't put in front of children, or would have a hard time explaining to some of them, but on balance I think I would rather have them than not.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion or Facebook

Advertisement
Advertisement