Oops! Now You Can Track the Tweets Politicians Tried to Delete

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Remember that time John McCain mocked "Vlad" Putin? So does the Internet.

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Stephen Fincher, Congressional representative of the 8th district of Tennessee, once posted the following observation to his Twitter feed:

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Half an hour after posting his message, however, Fincher deleted it -- thus depriving the world not only of an opportunity for comparative textual analysis, but also for conversational interaction with a politician. Post, think better of it, delete. That might have been the end of things. A small insight into a politician (or, at least, into the staffer of a politician) lost to history.

Until now, that is. Today, the transparency-minded folks over at the Sunlight Foundation are releasing a new service: Politwoops, which exists solely to resurface deleted tweets from politicians' accounts. The project follows the official Twitter feeds of, among others, President Obama, members of Congress, and presidential candidates; when a pol has a deleted a tweet, Politwoops records the deletion and archives the message. It also records, helpfully, the time of deletion and the amount of time elapsed between posting and deletion. Think Tweleted, only politics-focused and operational.

The Politwoops team has been compiling a database of deleted tweets for six months now -- so, though today marks the service's official launch, Politwoops has already recorded over 3,000 deleted tweets for your schadenfreudistic enjoyment. These include: Senator John McCain mocking the tears of Vladimir Putin after the latter's re-election; Newt Gingrich's campaign account tweeting, Dole-like, in the third person; and Representative Jeff Miller tweeting a link to a Facebook poll asking, "Was Obama born in the United States?"

The deleted tweets vary from the embarrassing-and-humanizing to the horrifically awkward ... but, either way, they add another layer of accountability to the churning machine of political communications. While we probably did not need another reminder that politicians make mistakes, there's a certain power in seeing the deleted tweets collected into this odd archive of political anti-matter.

And there's a power as well, of course, in the pols knowing that archive exists.

There's also, most importantly, an informational element to the service. While it is hugely instructive to know that a politician or staffer has deleted a given tweet ... it could be even more instructive to figure out why a given tweet was deleted. The reasons for some deletions -- typos, pocket tweets, hacked accounts -- are obvious. Some, however, are less so. Why did Tom Graves delete his tweet about his date night with his wife? Why did Kathy Hochul delete hers about a day spent at a cancer institute? What revelations lurk behind all these thought-better-of messages? Politwoops could be a gold mine for reporters and for anyone else with an interest in keeping officials accountable. There will always be follow the money; now there's follow the tweet.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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