PostGhost was a service that stored and displayed the deleted Tweets of celebrities and politicians. Created as a way to keep public discourse honest, Twitter shut it down with a cease and desist warning citing a failure to comply with API rules. The resulting brouhaha led me to track down the anonymous founder and ask him or her a few questions about what happened.
TC: Who are you? How many people worked on the project? How long did it take?
PostGhost: This has been primarily a one man project over a few months. I’d rather not name myself quite yet as I’d prefer the focus to be on the site.
TC: Why did you shut it down so quickly?
PG: My API feed has been up and running, recording deleted tweets since February, and the site’s been up since around April, but as soon as Twitter saw the site was going viral and that people were publicly able to hold verified power users accountable for their deleted tweets, they shut it down.
TC: Why did you do it?
PG: I noticed in the fall in winter that Twitter was going to be a defining and, possibly, deciding factor in the 2016 Presidential election, and has a massive impact on the national conversation every day. Twitter reauthorized Politwoops, which tracks deleted tweets from politicians. However, many public figures besides politicians practice political speech on Twitter who aren’t themselves politicians – like journalists. For instance, Megyn Kelly has a reach far exceeding almost every politician, and yet, I’m now prohibited from showing the following deleted tweet:
Or this one:
These accounts aren’t politicians but all are very visible public figures with far more followers than most politicians and thus have an outsized ability to make their voices heard online. PostGhost was created to create a public record of such important tweets. I think having full accountability for these powerful voices is incredibly important going into the election this fall.
TC: Why do you think Twitter shut you down?
PG: I haven’t gotten a specific reason – and in fact have only seen the auto-generated message posted on postghost.com right now. Twitter most likely has concerns about user privacy, which I understand and respect. Of the 400 million plus Twitter accounts, 99% or more are individuals who do have a right to privacy. However, Twitter itself maintains a list of verified users, which are “highly sought users” and “key individuals and brands” – these users have, on average, 123,000 followers. According to Medium, this list contains journalists, media outlets, politicians, governments, NGOs, actors, etc. Some random examples: Fareed Zakaria, Mumford and Sons, Nordstrom, and of course, Wired. These are accounts that exist in the public sphere, and have an enormous ability to influence public discourse simply by tweeting. PostGhost only reported on deleted tweets by public verified users with 10,000 or more followers, to make sure there was no way it would capture any tweets from private individuals. Of course, this is the same subset of users Twitter relies on to create its most valuable content, so its obvious why they’d apply different rules to them than to politicians, despite both groups being comprised of public figures.
Twitter doesn’t even show special users ads.
TC: Is it OK that they shut you down?
PG: They’ve given themselves the right to shut down any API user they choose – legally, of course they can shut us down. What I don’t think the public fully realizes, though, is the lack of accountability in the dominant platform for massive online speech in 2016. In any other medium – radio, TV, blogs – there is no undo button. If a public figure slips up and says something revealing on live TV, any individual or member of the public is free to reprint that statement, to comment on and discuss it at will- the First Amendment makes sure of it. However, a massive amount of public discourse now happens online, on Twitter, and since they control the platform, they can decide the rules with no accountability or oversight whatsoever.
TC: Is Twitter a public good? A private company? A parasite?
PG: Twitter has been, above all else, a huge force for spreading free speech around the world. But as you imply, Twitter is a private company that is increasingly becoming a public good. As such, the public has a right to treat public speech on Twitter exactly like public speech anywhere else and comment on it, share it and critique it – even if the speaker later regrets the statement.
TC: What’s next for the project? Will you start up again?
PG: I’d love to, but I’m waiting for Twitter’s response and will have to go from there. Public pressure on Twitter – at least to make their rules on deleted tweets more transparent and fair – would help, but this is not an issue that usually gets much attention. I think Twitter has a responsibility to explain why they allow Poltiwoops to record deleted tweets from accounts that that organization deems worthy, but won’t entertain the option for anyone else – especially given the massive power to influence discourse held by Twitter accounts with hundreds of thousands or millions of followers. They need to recognize that political speech is not an activity limited to politicians, and the public should be free to discuss deleted tweets from influential celebrities, journalists, and the media as freely as they can for politicians.
TC: How many people read your deleted Tweets?
PG: The site went viral after a very popular Youtuber “failed to disclose they owned skin gambling site CSGO Lotto, despite making numerous videos that showed them winning money on the site.”
Because the account (@tmartn) was verified and has 1.2M followers, PostGhost covered it, but no other site did. Here’s a deleted tweet we recorded from him:
In other words, the site caught on when people realized it was a new way to hold accountable the influential accounts they follow. I don’t want to give exact numbers, but we had about a week of heavy traffic before Twitter shut it down.
TC: How would you feel if you went nuts on Twitter and someone kept your Tweet around forever?
PG: This already happens every day – Google “deleted tweet” and you’ll find thousands of articles tweets deleted by public figures which users screenshot and send in. Screenshots are easy to fake though (see http://simitator.com/generator/twitter) and so at present, it’s impossible to definitively verify whether a deleted tweet you see online is real. This week, The Guardian linked to PostGhost as proof that Andrea Leadsom retweeting that the UK is “overrun with foreigners” was real.
I don’t think people should have to guess whether or not a deleted tweet is legitimate or not, especially when, as we saw in Brexit, their vote may depend on it. To wit – these are some tweets posted then quickly deleted before and during the Brexit vote: Tweets with enough reach to influence voting, but with no way to find them after the fact, as the celebrities who posted them quickly deleted them:
These should constitute an important part of the public record on Brexit, but they’re nowhere to be found online aside from the sites that just happened to screenshot them.