Propublica’s Politwoops Archive in Peril — Can It Be Saved?
On February 24 2023, data journalist Derek Willis tweeted a “eulogy” for Politwoops, an archive of deleted tweets in the public interest maintained by investigative journalism organization ProPublica:
For six years I had the responsibility of running Politwoops, the @ProPublica site that tracked deleted tweets from politicians.
Today you can read my eulogy. Gonna miss this news app that was revealing & silly at the same time:https://t.co/ynfPcuoIdB
— Derek Willis (@derekwillis) February 24, 2023
Two ProPublica editors shared the link, tweeting:
Well, you may have seen my post asking if anyone could help us with Politwoops. We think it’s hopeless for now, so @derekwillis wrote its (second!) euology: https://t.co/3QKxoQ2Vv0
— Ken Schwencke (@schwanksta) February 24, 2023
RIP Politwoops. Twitter killed you.
After a Decade of Tracking Politicians’ Deleted Tweets, Politwoops Is No More https://t.co/lWtvXzXxWG by @derekwillis
— Charles Ornstein (@charlesornstein) February 24, 2023
A Brief Introduction to Politwoops
Politwoops, which archives tweets that are posted and then deleted by politicians and other public figures, has long been one of several extremely reliable, straight-to-the-point tools routinely used by fact checkers. We have referenced it in many fact checks — often to determine whether a politician’s tweet is real or fabricated, and to examine suspiciously compelling and purportedly deleted tweets.
In August 2015, Politwoops became the subject of controversy after Twitter disabled it:
Why did Twitter kill a beloved tool, Politwoops, that kept track of deleted tweets from politicians? Twitter’s inspiration was unsatisfactorily simple: because it could. But when the social media platform decided to enforce a technical rule about its developer tools against a popular transparency project, it opened up a very nasty can of worms. As Philip Bump of the Washington Post remarked on the matter, “Twitter’s internal logic is flawless. The result is ridiculous.”
The Vox.com explainer excerpted above described a dispute about the preservation of deleted tweets:
When tweets were deleted, Twitter would send a “flag” or alert to third-party API users as an implied instruction to take down that tweet from wherever they used that tweet’s information. But Politwoops was cleverly using the alerts as, essentially, a to-do list. Twitter should have been monitoring how third parties use its data to make sure its rules were being followed. It seems the company forgot to enforce its API rules the entire time Politwoops operated; Twitter declined to comment on the reason why.
Politwoops was violating Twitter’s rule about deleted tweets
Twitter’s deleted tweets rule is very simple: When the platform flagged deleted tweets, third parties with API access were supposed take the tweet down from their sites. Politwoops used its access in the opposite way Twitter intended, by using the alerts as a way to keep track of and share deleted tweets. So it was only a matter of time before Twitter had to make a decision about enforcing, or changing, its own rules.
In December 2015, technology news site The Verge reported that Politwoops would be re-enabled:
This summer [of 2015], Twitter shut down Politwoops, a network of sites dedicated to archiving deleted, regrettable tweets from politicians. The decision was met with criticism by several rights groups arguing for the necessity of political transparency. [On December 15 2015] Twitter announced it’s bringing Politwoops back. In conjunction with the governmental transparency nonprofits Sunlight Foundation and The Open State Foundation, Twitter says it will work to get Politwoops up and running again.
Elon Musk’s high-profile acquisition (and subsequent systematic destruction of) of Twitter in late 2022 introduced new concerns about efforts to archive and organize information on the platform. A Wired.com piece about archiving Twitter mentioned Politwoops:
An attempt by the United States Library of Congress, which began documenting every public tweet in 2010, failed. Tweets evolved from short bits of text to regularly include photos, videos, and live links. The library ended the Sisyphean project seven years later and said it would only archive select accounts. In 2012, the library said it was archiving half a billion tweets each day. A spokesperson for the library did not provide a comment to WIRED before this story was published.
Smaller, third-party services have sought for years to archive more specific content. ProPublica keeps a list of politicians’ deleted tweets on its Politwoops database. PolitiTweet has a database tracking 1,500 accounts. These keep records of statements and news stories from significant people in government and politics, but the projects don’t intend to capture the mass discourse of online communication.
A ‘Eulogy’ for Politwoops
On February 24 2023, ProPublica published a story with the headline, “After a Decade of Tracking Politicians’ Deleted Tweets, Politwoops Is No More,” noting in a subheading that “service changes made after Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter have rendered it impossible for us to continue tracking these tweets.”
It began with a more detailed history of the “tenuous existence” of Politwoops, explained how Twitter’s newly unstable functionality stymied attempts to maintain a record of politicians’ tweets.
It briefly alluded to the possibility that the service could be rescued:
Politicians haven’t stopped deleting some of their most cringeworthy tweets, but Politwoops, our project that has tracked and archived more than half a million deleted tweets from candidates and elected officials since 2012, is no longer able to track them.
Since Elon Musk took over Twitter, the platform has disabled the function we used to track deletions — and the new method that Twitter says should identify them appears to be broken. We have been unable to find anyone who can help us, and with Twitter surprising developers by announcing a move to a paid model for gathering tweet data, it’s no longer clear that Twitter is a stable platform on which to maintain this work. It seems fitting to give Politwoops a sendoff, a farewell to not exactly a friend but an odd part of our national political discourse for a decade.
Originally built by the Sunlight Foundation, Politwoops always had a tenuous existence. Born in 2012, it received its first eulogy just three years later after Twitter pulled the plug, only to come back just in time for the 2016 presidential election. (Now-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy welcomed it back, then deleted that tweet.) When Sunlight closed up shop, ProPublica took over the app, which is when I started to maintain it.
One very notable example of the worth of Politwoops appeared at the beginning of the piece:
Some deleted posts are hard to forget, like one from then-President Donald Trump in the early evening of Jan. 6, 2021, not long after a mob invaded the U.S. Capitol and assaulted police officers in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election[.]
The “eulogy” provided a novel perspective from the people running Politwoops. It discussed both notable and mundane issues, and explained why and how the rare redaction might occur. Lastly, the piece ended with a faintly hopeful note — once again asking anyone with the ability to preserve the service to step forward:
That’s one of the things I’ll miss most about running Politwoops: getting a glimpse behind the carefully crafted images that politicians present to the public. ProPublica would be happy to continue running this service, so if anyone at Twitter wants to help out, please get in touch. That includes you, Elon. [email protected]
ProPublica’s Politwoops, a long-running project to archive politicians’ deleted tweets, was the subject of a February 24 2023 “eulogy,” disclosing that the service was “no longer able to track” deleted tweets. Politwoops survived at least one near-death experience in 2015, resuming efforts late that year. ProPublica editors indicated that Politwoops could be salvaged, and put out a plea to anyone willing to help save it. Politwoops provided an important function in new media, enabling journalists, fact checkers, and social media users to determine whether an outrageous or impossible to find tweet was real or fabricated — and ensuring that powerful people continue to be held to account for their public statements.