A brief tweet from Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) recently invited you to see her newly-decorated apartment and head-to-toe fashions. The problem? It wasn't her apartment. The link led to the website of a staffer in her press office and was promptly deleted from Twitter fifty-seven seconds later. Looks like someone got their social media accounts mixed up.
Tom Lee, Director of Sunlight Labs, explains: "Social media has become an important way for elected officials to communicate with the people they represent. We think this medium ought to be held to the same standards as others—in particular, it should be accessible to everyone and subject to scrutiny."
How it got started
The idea came from the Open State Foundation, which has hosted a Dutch version of Politwoops for about two years. They approached the Sunlight Foundation to host a sister site for U.S. politicians. The Sunlight Foundation uses online tools to make the government more accountable and transparent, so it was a perfect fit.
Using the Twitter streaming API, Politwoops collects incoming tweets from the House, Senate and presidential candidates and generates screenshots of the links within them. When a deletion signal comes across the wire, the tweet is marked. A Sunlight staffer reads the marked tweets and approves those that are eventually displayed on the site. The manual approval process prevents repeats.
On the technology side, the website frontend is Rails; the tweet collection script is written in Python. The project uses Beanstalk, MySQL, the tweetstream and boto libraries, and PhantomJS for screenshots. According to Lee, "Sunlight believes in open source, and we're hoping to release the code to this project, like we do for the rest of our tools."
What it all means
The question remains, though, what's useful about Politwoops? According to Lee, "Shortly after we launched, Rep. Jeff Miller shut down his Twitter account, seemingly because of a tweet we collected that went to a Facebook poll questioning whether the President had been born in the US. The fact that a congressman (or, more realistically, his staffer) would implicitly endorse a thoroughly-discredited racist conspiracy theory is worth attention--his constituents deserve to know that."
While it's true the public should know more about their representatives, Lee brings up a good point. Most politicians' Twitter feeds are curated by staffers, not the politicians themselves. A quick dive into Politwoops reveals that most of the deleted tweets are mundane spelling errors or broken links which are quickly fixed and tweeted again. (A note to the Twitterverse: learn the difference between "peek" and "peak.") But handing over your Twitter handle to your staff carries more risks than the occasional typo. Social media moves quickly, and a 140-character tweet isn't usually reviewed as carefully as a press release.
Karl Rove's American Crossroads SuperPac made headlines with a regrettable tweet a few weeks ago alleging drunk driving due to Commerce Secretary John Bryson's car crashes when in fact he suffered a seizure behind the wheel. Two hours later, they tweeted "Earlier Bryson tweet with hashtag #skills attempted levity (before facts known) and failed miserably. We took it down and regret the tweet."
"I think Politwoops makes it clear that you can't delete data from the Internet," says Lee. "Politicians can choose to respond to this in two ways...either by adding yet another layer of control over the way they communicate with the public, buying approval-queue products from vendors and repeating only the most bland, polished talking points; or by taking back the reins of their Twitter accounts from the twentysomething staffers they've handed them to, and making peace with the idea of speaking a little more directly and honestly to the public. Cynics might assume that everyone will go with the first option, but there are actually a number of legislators who embody the alternative I've described."
What we say on the Internet lives forever. Perhaps Politwoops will help public officials realize that and encourage more transparent dialogue between representatives and their constituents.