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The Deleted Tweets Of Politicians Find A New Home


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, could raising the retirement age help preserve Social Security? A new study suggested that actually might not work, and could also significantly hurt blue-collar workers. We'll talk about that in just a few minutes.

But first, have you ever had one of those moments where you said something, and immediately wished you could take it back? Have you ever posted something on Facebook or Twitter, and then realized it might not be such a great idea to send that out to your network of followers?

Luckily, your "oops" moments probably are not cataloged for everybody to see - that is, unless you are a member of Congress, or you are running for president. Meet Politwoops, a project that reviews and archives the missing and edited tweets of our politicians. It debuted last week. It is a project of the Sunlight Foundation. That's a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that wants to use technology for more government openness and transparency.

Tom Lee is the director of the technical arm of the Sunlight Foundation, and he joins us now to talk about Politwoops. Tom, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

TOM LEE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So where did this idea come from?

LEE: Well, it was originally created by a Dutch nonprofit called the Open State Foundation, and they've been running a site around the Netherlands Parliament for about two years. They came to us and thought that Sunlight might be a good home for a U.S. edition. So we took their code, added a few new features, and released it last week.

MARTIN: Are there any other countries where it's in use or...

LEE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...people are using it?

LEE: Yeah. Actually, there's about 12 EU countries. The Open State Foundation's made it pretty easy for people who want to apply this model to their home countries, to extend it. Sunlight's done something a little bit different for the U.S., where we've added in search and screen shots, things like that.

MARTIN: And what's the idea?

LEE: Well, it's pretty simple. Basically, once you delete a tweet on Twitter, it's already gone out to the world. So we capture those deleted tweets, and make sure they're easily accessible by people.

MARTIN: Why? Why do you think that's important to do?

LEE: Well, social media's become a really important part of how Congress interacts with their constituents. And for pretty much every other medium, we don't extend this kind of memory hole to the people that we elect. So as this medium's become more important, we think it deserves more scrutiny, and deserves to be treated like other official records that are produced by our legislators.

MARTIN: Give an example of the kind of tweet that would be deleted, that you would preserve. I think that the first thing that probably comes to everybody's mind is former congressman Anthony Weiner's embarrassing tweets in a state of undress - let's say that - that he sent out to a couple of people. And is that something that you have preserved, or would preserve?

LEE: Sure. Well, that, I think, would be a pretty extreme case. If you look at the site, the average deleted tweet is much more banal than that. In some ways, it's kind of more intimate and revealing - revealing might be the wrong word, I guess. But it's a simpler kind of thing, where it might be a little typo; or it might just be something that's been expressed, that's maybe a little bit more personal than they meant. It could be a legislator talking about date night with their wife, or their opinions about the "Hunger Games" movie. That's kind of the - I would say - the typical tweet that we capture here.

I should say, though, that we do think that there are some important moments that need to be preserved, and which are politically relevant. Jeff Miller, from Florida, tweeted out something that questioned the country of the president's birth, and then quickly deleted it. And I think that his, you know, constituents have a right to know about that kind of scrutiny.

MARTIN: Well, why not - why, though? I mean, what about the date night example? What if, you know, a member of Congress tweets - you know - out on date night with the wife; important to keep these special moments. And then wife is standing there and says, excuse me - you know - I don't particularly want to be part of your tweet thing - you know. And he's like, oops. Why is that important to preserve as a public document?

LEE: Well, I guess I would say that it's not so much that that individual tweet might be, but I think the overall experience of seeing how these folks are using social media or - you know, to be fair, in some cases, how their staffs are using social media, can give a fuller picture of them as human beings.

I should also say that the other thing underlying this is that it's kind of a fiction to pretend that you can put something out on the Internet, and then delete it. So some people will have gotten this material no matter what. We just want to make sure that everyone has an equal right and ability to access it, whether they're journalists or voters or whoever.

MARTIN: I mean, is the fundamental theory here that, if you're using that account as part of your political messaging, then anything you say in that context is fair game?

LEE: Yeah. I think that's right. These are, in some respects, official pronouncements from elected officials. They've, in many cases, been written by staff who are being paid with our tax dollars and they should be preserved. Like I said, some people have already had access to a given tweet once it's gone out. It's just a question of making sure that everyone has equitable access to it and can see the full record.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Tom Lee. He is the director of the technical arm of the Sunlight Foundation. That's a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that has just launched something called Politwoops. It will capture the deleted tweets of political figures.

Give an analogy, if you would, that might help put this in perspective for people. I mean, is the idea that - I mean, you know, people misspeak sometimes. I mean, sometimes, perhaps you articulate something in a way that you had not intended to and you say, whoops, I misspoke. Is it the idea that misspeaking is never to be tolerated or is it that - do you see my point here? Is it that people are never to make a mistake?

LEE: I do see your point and I don't think that we are promoting intolerance of those kinds of little snafus. Rather, I think that we just want something that provides a fuller picture. My hope would be that, as people look at the way that social media's being used by elected officials that they come to understand that these are just human beings, that sometimes it isn't the congressman or woman who's writing it themselves and that they have maybe a fuller appreciation for the fallibility of these folks.

MARTIN: Is it your intention, in part, to create an etiquette of social media, which is to say, you know - there's a saying, you know, you live by sword, you die by the sword. You live by the pen, you die by the pen and you live by publicity, you die by publicity, too. Is the idea to sort of create an etiquette around the use of social media that says, if you don't - well, I'll tell you - one example being, you know, often, young journalists are told, if you don't want something to turn up in the Columbia Journalism Review, then don't write it. You know, is it sort of to create a new discipline for public officials around the use of social media?

LEE: Well, I think our ambitions are little more modest, but it is important to realize that these kinds of standards and norms already exist for electronic communication for most officials. Emails sent by executive branch agencies have to be preserved and so do social media offerings, in this case. Whether they're deleted or not, there are laws that say this stuff has to be on public record. Now, that doesn't obtain for Congress, but we think that the same standard makes sense for anybody who's in a position of power.

MARTIN: What's been the reaction so far?

LEE: Well, it's been pretty uniformly positive. Journalists seem to really like it and its potential. We've gotten a lot of good feedback from the public and a lot of interest from people in other countries who'd like to apply this model to their own parliaments.

MARTIN: What about members of Congress? Have you heard from them?

LEE: I don't think we've heard directly, but we have actually seen some pretty amusing changes in how they behave. Almost immediately, a few Republican members of Congress started intentionally deleting tweets to get to the top of the site with their own partisan messages to take advantage of the attention that the site was getting.

MARTIN: Interesting. Tom Lee is the director of the technical arm of the Sunlight Foundation that is hosting Politwoops and he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Tom Lee, thanks so much for speaking with us.

LEE: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.