The Internet Is Forever

06.01.12

At Politwoops, Washington’s Deleted Tweets Come Back From the Dead

Politicians may think their killed Twitter messages are gone for good. Not at Politwoops, where a horde of ill-considered missives live to see another day.

So much can change after a U.S. congressman mistakenly broadcasts pictures of his penis to the world. Former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner is no longer an elected official. Andrew Breitbart, the conservative raconteur responsible for Weiner’s downfall, is dead, his heart overcome, some said, by the stresses of perpetual Internet conflict.

Weinergate befell us one year ago this week. and it’s a fitting anniversary for the rollout of Politwoops, a new public-interest website that promises to pick up where Breitbart left off, but in a dispassionate and infinitely fairer way. The site, pronounced “poli-twoops” (Twitter being comprised of tweeps who occasionally twoops), describes itself as “the only comprehensive collection of deleted tweets by U.S. politicians.” It’s an impressive archive, amassed not by some unlucky summer interns pulling all-night Twitter-monitoring shifts, but by new software codes that catch all those messages that politicians wished away.

Politwoops is run by The Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to pouring light into even the darkest, dankest crevasses of our messy democratic process. The software was first formatted in the Netherlands (hence the baby-talk, triple-portmanteau name), but was updated by Sunlight Labs for American purposes. Politwoops will screen messages by legislators, presidential candidates, and even President Obama’s Twitter account 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year. No one can hide, not even @ChuckGrassley.

Like any data-exhausting public service, most of what turns up on Politwoops turns out to be pretty boring. Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison posted “Test” on the afternoon of May 30 with his BlackBerry. Twenty-four minutes later, he deleted it. We still don’t know why.

Or then there was upstate New York Rep. Kathy Hochul, who on Tuesday deleted a link to a Facebook photo of a discussion she had at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., with Dr. Donald Trump.  #HorribleCoincidences.

Aside from these understandable do-overs, Politwoops also shows us some gems of Twitter regret, like when Newt Gingrich did his best Norman Mailer and tweeted about himself in the third-person. Other examples offer a beyond-the-looking-glass perspective on bad decisions realized too late. Last winter, independent presidential candidate Buddy Roemer inexplicably wrote this. Then just two weeks ago, it took Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), 55 minutes to erase a link he posted on his Facebook page that asked, “Was Obama born in the United States?” Without the added sunlight, we may never have known that Rep. Miller is either a frothing mad conspiracist or a manipulative cynic who encourages widespread ignorance for his own political gain. Thanks, Politwoops!

Kenyan quizzes aside, Sunlight Labs director Tom Lee doesn’t want his site to become a “gaffe machine” that ends congressional careers. He hopes the new tool will bridge the communications gap that separates voters from their own elected officials and “provide an intimate perspective” on what happens when the cameras aren’t rolling. Best-case scenario, we get some fascinating political eavesdropping. Deleted tweets could prove as incriminating and vicious as the Nixon Tapes or just plain weird, like those phone calls where LBJ ordered his summer pants. Best part is, we can watch it all unfold in real time.

Anthony Weiner’s fundamental mistake wasn’t tweeting lewd pictures of himself. It was not understanding how Twitter works. Just as the young and cool John F. Kennedy bested a sweaty Nixon in the first televised presidential debates, so too has social media awarded those who master the medium, and destroyed those who #FAIL.

A day after Politwoops launched, some savvy Republicans started communicating through intentionally deleted tweets. On Thursday, Speaker of the House John Boehner wrote “You know what else has been deleted? Jobs in the Obama economy. Where are the jobs?”

On Thursday, Montana Republican Denny Rehberg was the Politwoops Jedi master, bending the definitions of purpose and intent to temporarily dominate the “mistake” message feed with posts like this one: “Now, thanks to #politwoops, Twitter mistakes—like government mistakes—are around for good. Best to get both right the first time.” Rehberg’s point is not technically true, of course (laws can and do change over time), but it sounds good and was a clever use of technology. Rehberg spokesman Jed Link said the congressman wanted to “highlight that government is fallible and that we should take a careful look at mistakes that are made in policy as well as on Twitter.”

Rehberg, who is running to replace Montana Democrat and noted flat-top Jon Tester in the Senate, had a simpler message about his communications hijinks. Social media, he said, encourages innovation and creativity. “I mean, where else can you get a message out by erasing it? How cool is that?”

That’s a question that the zombie tweets at Politwoops may yet be able to answer.