The Freedom to Delete: Politicians and the Changing Conversation on Privacy

In late August, Twitter took steps to remove 30 Politwoops accounts from its site. These accounts, maintained by the Open State Foundation, a government transparency organization, cataloged the deleted tweets of politicians and diplomats from around the world. Twitter’s decision was an extension of its choice to originally remove Politwoops U.S. (a version of the project specific to the U.S.) in June. 

In its correspondence with the Open State Foundation, Twitter stated, “Imagine how nerve-racking—terrifying, even—tweeting would be if it was immutable and irrevocable? No one user is more deserving of that ability than another. Indeed, deleting a tweet is an expression of the user’s voice.” While users still have the ability to monitor the tweets of political figures for discrepancies and changes in real time, tracking data in an automated platform, in this case known as Application Programming Interface, is forbidden in Twitter’s terms of service because it breaches personal privacy. The timing of Twitter’s decision comes in the midst of a presidential race where candidate’s statements, both intentional and unintentional, are shaping popular election rhetoric, all the while charming and alienating different constituent bases. As a result, we may be in the midst of an opportune time to reexamine how we view our freedom to speech as a society, and the expectations we hold politicians to as they exercise this same liberty.

Before its removal, Politwoops received significant praise from journalists and government transparency groups around the world. TIME Magazine named Politwoops U.S. one of the best websites in 2012, for its ability to monitor politicians who “have a tendency to speak without thinking.” While the original Politwoops site was developed in the Netherlands in 2010, additional archives were established in Europe, South America, and countries such as Tunisia and Egypt where norms for government accountability are continuously changing. An article published by the Sunlight Foundation, an advocacy organization for open government, reads, “There is immense value in tracking deleted public tweets, which offered an intimate perspective on politicians and how they communicate with their constituents.” Undoubtedly, the information previously collected by Politwoops is intriguing, but how this data, and similar data collections are used, presents a number of ethical questions.

Does the public have a right to private information once it is brought into the public sphere?

In the past, the behavior of politicians and leaders on social media has certainly influenced the success or failure of one’s career in office. Social media allows private information to be accessed by a public audience. Any statement made in front of a public audience, whether on Twitter or on the campaign stage, is open for criticism. The only difference between social media and the campaign stage is that statements made in the former are, hypothetically, able to be redacted. 

Does the public have a right to private information once it is brought into the public sphere? If not, should elected officials be entitled to the same level of privacy as their constituents? These questions are sure to arise repeatedly in the coming months, and as justice-seekers, it would do us well to advocate for a healthy level of transparency in our political system.

On a basic level, it’s very important that we monitor the words and actions of political figures. As constituents, we need to elect credible and trustworthy leaders. These fundamental character traits allow us to believe that once in office, candidates will not only follow through on their promises, but that we will be able to hold them accountable for the large amount of resources and responsibilities they will be entrusted with. If social media shows that a political figure has breached the public’s trust by either making poor decisions in their personal life or political career, how does that shape the way we value said information? Politwoops and similar platforms are one way to go about collecting data, but they may put leaders in an unfair position.

In another light, it’s important that we monitor information shared by politicians because it may highlight possible problems in their ability to effectively govern. Slip ups or mistakes all too often reveal biases that politicians or candidates hold. In our digital age, said statements are quickly carried outside of the venues in which they originally appear. Words captured in a town hall or Instagram post quickly enter the public domain and remain there permanently. This information can drastically change the favorability of a candidate, and it may be for the better. For example, if you are a female voter who comes across unrequited statements made by a political contender about women, it may reveal an inability for that candidate to favorably advocate for policies that impact women when they are in office. In this case, was the ability to capture information ultimately to the public’s benefit? This potential scenario, and a host of others, highlight the importance of continuously asking questions in the debate around political privacy.

While there may be no clear line on just how much privacy politicians are entitled to, there are several observations that we can take into account as we move forward. Politicians and leaders ought to understand the importance of constituents having the information they need to make wise decisions at the polls. These decisions necessitate feelings of trustworthiness, and politicians need to have the expectation that their words and actions on social media can compromise their ability to be seen as credible.  Social media can be used to turn up the pressure on politicians in good and bad ways, but there needs to be a respect for the dignity of all of the players who are involved.

As we reflect on Twitter’s decision to close down 31 Politwoops sites this summer, we can gain a deeper sense of insight into the expectations we place on both politicians and voters. Transparency will always play a part in democracy. How increased means to achieve transparency will impact our threshold on privacy, however, is less certain.

 -Jenny Hyde is a recent alumna of Gordon College, where she received her degree in International Affairs. She is currently living and working in Washington, D.C.