The 2-Year-Old Zombie Tweet About Libya Now Stalking John McCain

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In 2009, Senator John McCain took a trip to Libya to meet with the country's leaders including Muammar Qaddafi. The country's state sponsored news agency claimed that McCain praised Qaddafi for supposed peacemaking in Africa.

McCain didn't say much about the trip, but on August 15, 2009, he did tweet, "Late evening with Col. Qadhafi at his "ranch" in Libya - interesting meeting with an interesting man."

Fast forward two years and McCain's tone had changed. The chumminess was all gone. "Qaddafi on his way out, Bashar al Assad is next," he tweeted Sunday.

But in the virtual world of Twitter, his old tweet sprung back to life. Last night I started seeing the 2009 tweet over and over. When McCain's communications team wanted to associate him with Qaddafi's exit, some Twitter users wanted to remind people of his previous meetings with the Libyan leader. They even used the service's "official" retweet option, so we knew for sure that McCain had commented on Qaddafi's ranch.

Call it a zombie retweet. Like the instant version of The Daily Show's elephantine video recall, Twitter users exhumed the long ago post and got it moving virally at a key moment when McCain clearly wouldn't have wanted such a thing to happen.

The point isn't to pick on McCain -- lots of world leaders have been nice to nasty dictators and then turned on them -- but to note that this is going to happen more and more often. And it's going to be confusing. Zombie retweets dont come marked with a date stamp. After I first saw the old tweet, I went to McCain's page and searched it for the Qaddafi ranch reference. Obviously, it wasn't in the first few pages of archived tweets. Searching it in Twitter did no good. Some bloggers, luckily, had provided the context for the tweet and linked to the original 2009 tweet, so it could be verified.

This is one of the more pressing reasons why Twitter needs to fix its search capabilities. Right now, the service is archiving everything but not really indexing it. We're creating a massive database that can only be accessed if you happen to know the URL of an old tweet. That's ridiculous. If Twitter wants to be the world's giant pulsating brain, carrying information across the globe and influencing world events, they've got to create a useable archive, so we can pinpoint the epicenter of any zombie retweet outbreak.

Update 4:39 p.m.: Jezebel's Irin Carmon and @stepshep point out that this is actually the second reanimation of this particular tweet. It first shambled back into the present in March when McCain came out forcefully for removing Qaddafi from power. ABC's Matthew Jaffe reported that he asked the McCain camp about the meeting and they said, "Gadhafi pushed back the meeting from 4p until 11p. When the meeting finally did take place, the spokesperson said, it was brief and took place in a tent on the grounds."

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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