Return of the tweets

Greg Nash

There is nothing stopping scores of individuals and media outlets from starting their own private Politwoops projects, said the manager for the now-defunct archive at the Sunlight Foundation.

Nicko Margolies is the 28-year-old Sunlight employee who for the past three years largely ran Politwoops, the tool that published the deleted tweets of lawmakers and political candidates.  

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During an interview with The Hill nearly two months after Twitter effectively killed the operation for violating its terms of service, Margolies said his suggestion should not be interpreted as a call to arms for other users to flout the social media company’s privacy policy. 

“I would not be surprised if there are other people or organizations that are interested in this or finding ways around it, or just not doing it publicly,” he said. “That’s the other thing. We were following members of both parties. We were doing it in public. And we were allowing anyone to see these deletions. So really it was an accountability tool for everyone.” 

“If we weren’t sort of a work-in-the-open organization, you could run Politwoops and just not tell anyone. And I think Twitter probably wouldn’t find out,” he said at another point, before quickly adding, “That’s not an endorsement.”

Margolies is a D.C. native who went to school at Kenyon College in Ohio. He returned to the nation’s capital and soon after took a job at Sunlight. He started out doing data entry at Sunlight’s Political Party Time tool, which he now leads, before taking over as project manager at Politwoops.

Sunlight has no plans to revive the tool using some different method. And Margolies is not holding his breath for Twitter to reconsider its move. 

But the Sunlight Foundation is still largely in the dark about what prompted Twitter to cut off the nonprofit’s access to Twitter’s API, which gives programmers access to Twitter’s stream. The decision came down on May 15, nearly three years after the initial launch. 

“So a lot of people immediately thought that a politician had complained to Twitter,” Margolies said. “There was some speculation that it was because Twitter is involved in lobbying on the Hill and this may conflict with that. But I will leave all those conspiracy theories to others. I’m just really sad that this tool is gone.”

Twitter did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

A statement it released back in June when the news was first made public read in part that, “Honoring the expectation of user privacy for all accounts is a priority for us, whether the user is anonymous or a member of Congress.”

There was never any question that the Sunlight Foundation was in violation of Twitter’s guidelines, which forbids programmers from creating tools to archive the public’s deletions. The violation had been apparent since its launch in 2012, but Sunlight believed its transparency mission warranted an exception. 

For a time, Twitter seemed to agree. 

Twitter raised concerns shortly after the initial 2012 launch, but the Sunlight Foundation says it came to a handshake agreement with the social media company that would allow Politwoops to stay in operation if it bolstered its review process — specifically, if it had actual humans filter out deleted tweets that contained minor errors and were corrected by lawmakers. 

For this article, Sunlight shared details of its email correspondence with Twitter from 2012 in which the nonprofit described the terms of the agreement. 

When Twitter reversed course back in May, Sunlight looked around to see if anyone at the nonprofit had friends inside the company and realized that many of the people it worked with back in 2012 had since moved on. 

Some of the speculation about potential lawmaker intervention was fueled because Twitter’s decision was not uniformly handed down. 

The program, adopted by the Sunlight Foundation in 2012, was originally developed by the Open State Foundation in the Netherlands. There are Politwoops tools set up to track
politicians from dozens of countries, but Sunlight’s tool in the United States appeared to be the only one cut off. 

Margolies is afraid to pose that seeming paradox to Twitter, because the other organizations appear to be “running under the radar.” The attention could cause Twitter to crack down on the others, rather than reinstate Sunlight’s tool. 

“But I don’t really think there is a method to the way that [Twitter has] done this. Or maybe the [other] organization is doing something that we didn’t do,” Margolies said. 

Since Politwoops’s death, Margolies has moved back over to Sunlight’s Political Party Time tool, which aggregates invitations to political fundraisers. But he can still run through a playlist of the greatest hits of lawmakers’ deleted tweets for the past three years. 

He acted as both site manager and a kind of investigator, pestering lawmakers’ offices for an explanation of deletions. 

He learned the humility of dealing with PR operations that hardly ever responded, gained sympathy for some staffers who were punished for letting an embarrassing tweet slip from their boss’s account and experienced sheer bewilderment at some tweets that came in front of him — like the time Sen. David Perdue’s (R-Ga.) Senate campaign tweeted a picture of its credit card for all to see.

“It’s really just a mirror of what these politicians were saying,” he said. “So there is only so much guilt I am going to carry for hitting play on a recording for something they said.”

He said the site most proved its worth during the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl: A number of lawmakers tweeted praise for the release of the soldier but then quietly deleted those messages days later as the terms of the exchange became more controversial. 

Lawmakers likely won’t lose sleep over the death of a tool dedicated to capturing their social media errors. While Margolies said most offices generally did not like when he pestered them over deletions, he could not remember fielding an angry call from a lawmaker or staffer.  

“There were not a lot of attacks on us personally,” he said.