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25 August 2015updated 27 Aug 2015 6:19am

The tweets that MPs delete – and why Twitter doesn’t want us to see them

Today, Twitter shut down a service that shows deleted politicians' tweets from around the world. Here's what we're losing.

By Barbara Speed

Say you’re a Tory minister, who – for whatever reason – retweeted a little rhyme calling the Labour party “full of queers”. Does the public deserve to know, even if you delete the tweet ten minutes later? 

This is the question faced by Twitter, thanks to Politwoop, a site that logs deleted tweets from politicians in 30-odd countries around the world. The site shows the tweet, the device it was tweeted from, and how long it took for the politician to delete it again. Here’s the entry for Tory Business, Innovation and Skills minister Matt Hancock’s retweeted ditty (he later tweeted that the reposting was a “total accident”):

Politwoop is run by the Open State Foundation (OSF), and is used as a political transparency tool. But unless Twitter reconsiders, the site’s work is at an end: Twitter HQ shut down the site (following the closure of Politwoop US back in June) this weekend by cutting off its API, a process which connected it to Twitter and allowed it to automatically republish deleted tweets on the Politwoop site

In a statement to the OSF, Twitter justified the decision by arguing that people – including politicians – should be able to delete tweets. In a statement to the foundation, a spokesperson reportedly said

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

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However, our expectation of privacy changes depending on whether we’re in the public eye or not. It would be unnecessary and cruel to expose the activities by a “normal” person to the public, as long as they aren’t breaking any laws, but there is a public interest in holding politicians to account for double-crossing, lying, or inconsistancies. 

Where you draw the line is subjective (politicians’ affairs, for example, are fair game for the Sun, but others of us might feel they should stay private), but we do accept that poltiicians open themselves to a certain degree of scrutiny. Add to that the fact that these Twitter accounts are used as part of MPs’ jobs, and sympathy for Twitter gaffe-prone politicos dwindles even more. 

It’s worth knowing, for example, that Labour MP Douglas Alexander posted, then deleted a series of tweets attacking Nicola Sturgeon after a leaked memo appeared to show her declaring support for David Cameron. Or that Tory MP Robert Halfon felt the need to go back and delete a tweet expressing sadness at Jimmy Savile’s death. Or that Donald Trump tweeted out a picture of men in Nazi uniforms, then deleted it. 

These slip-ups shouldn’t be treated very seriously – after all, the tweets were deleted, which should be taken into account. But things said in the public eye can’t be completed erased, even if they’re retracted and apologised for. It seems strange that Twitter would be excused from this rule. 

The OSF’s director, Arjan El Fassad, said in a statement that he believes these tweets should be in the public domain, just as other statements politicians may later regret should be: 

What elected politicians publicly say is a matter of public record. Even when tweets are deleted, it’s part of parliamentary history…This is not about typos but it is a unique insight on how messages from elected politicians can change without notice.”

I’m inclined to agree.