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Twitter's decision to ban archiving of politicians' deleted tweets is a mistake

Who does Twitter serve?

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Twitter’s commitment to transparency appears to end when it makes the powerful uncomfortable.

Back in 2012, Twitter decided to allow the Sunlight Foundation to collect and curate deleted tweets from lawmakers and people seeking public office in order to hold them accountable by preserving their public statements on the record. That behavior was in-line with a company whose founders constantly sold it as the nexus of free speech. "We are the free speech wing of the free speech party," Twitter's former CEO Dick Costolo famously said that same year.

But in June of this year, Twitter shut down the deleted tweet project in the US under the guise of "honoring the expectation of user privacy." Then, this Sunday, Twitter dealt the final blow, killing the Open State Foundation’s effort to archive deleted tweets from public officials in 30 other countries.

This is a terrible precedent, even if it’s not surprising. Twitter, like all profit-driven social platforms, has to make money — which means at some point it starts serving certain audiences (like celebrities and politicians) more than its ideals of free expression and transparency. The company sells itself as a democratizing tool the world over, but its actual commitment is more complicated. Twitter does care about preserving tweets — for brands.

Twitter's decision is immensely hypocritical

To put a fine point on Twitter’s hypocrisy, the company announced earlier this month that it would be giving some clients "instant and complete access to every historical public Tweet," for the purposes of marketing. "Dr. Carl Sagan once famously said, ‘you have to know the past to understand the present,’" Twitter wrote in introducing the new feature. "For brands to most effectively analyze Twitter data in the present, they also need to know what’s happened in the past." Funny, since you could say citizens and voters — Twitter’s user base — have the same need.

It’s easy to indict the effects of capitalism on public welfare, but Silicon Valley’s inexorable need to monetize everything might not be the real issue here. There seems to be a deeper, systemic problem at Twitter and elsewhere: treating everyone as equal when real people have different needs. Facebook, for instance, implemented a real-name requirement as a panacea for inauthenticity, but didn’t realize that type of automated policy is immensely harmful to marginalized groups of people who have good reasons for using pseudonyms.

The move to ban Politwoops is based on false-equivalency

Twitter’s decision to shut down the Open State Foundation and Sunlight Foundation’s deleted tweet programs is symptomatic of the kind of false-equivalency that runs rampant in tech companies. OSF says that Twitter banned its tool after "thoughtful internal deliberation and close consideration of a number of factors" that concluded with the idea that Twitter doesn’t distinguish between users. "Imagine how nerve-racking — terrifying, even — tweeting would be if it was immutable and irrevocable?", Twitter told OSF. "No one user is more deserving of that ability than another. Indeed, deleting a tweet is an expression of the user’s voice."

But Twitter doesn’t actually believe its own statement, because the company doesn’t actually treat all users equally. It actively "verifies" people of public importance, like journalists and politicians, to help authenticate their statements for broad dissemination. Why would Twitter need to verify the identity of only some individuals if their words were not more important than others by some measure? Even one of Twitter’s core algorithms is biased; in 2011, the company modified its search engine to organize tweets based on the "influence" of users, meaning it privileges the thoughts of celebrities and powerful people over others. Twitter is fundamentally designed around the idea that people are not equal.

Twitter has damaged its public trust

Twitter is either incapable of making essential distinctions, or becoming submissive to powerful users — and either scenario should damage everyone’s trust in the platform. The question of who is a public figure is murky, but the idea that politicians and people in positions of state power are public figures is uncontroversial. That they should be held accountable by having their publicly-stated words stored as a matter of record is well-established and fundamental to concepts of democracy: elected officials form a bright line, not a slippery slope. Twitter's decision is especially flabbergasting when you consider that the company originally blessed the idea of preserving the deleted tweets of politicians, only to suddenly have a change of heart three years later.

Twitter should reverse this harmful decision. The change in policy directly contradicts the company's mission statement, which is "to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers." Restricting use of an API to let the powerful erase their words is an Orwellian memory hole and nothing but a barrier to expression in a free society. A social platform with a record that’s only accessible to advertisers isn’t a public square — it’s just another circus.