Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
On Tuesday, the Library of Congress announced it’s going to stop archiving all tweets. Instead, it will only record a selection of them.
That’s a huge blow to the ability of Americans to hold politicians and companies accountable. In particular, social media has become more important to our politics than ever before, so we need more tools to hold politicians responsible for their behavior on social media – not less.
Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump won the presidency with the help of social media. During the 2016 presidential election, for example, Trump tweeted more than any other candidate until he became “the most talked-about person on the planet,” according to the social media company SocialFlow.
But one problem with social media is that, unlike with traditional media, politicians can directly tell the public whatever they want. Their statements are not vetted or fact-checked before publication. This enables them to easily make false claims. Just 16% of Donald Trump’s statements researched by PolitiFact, a fact-checking website, have been rated either “true” or “mostly true.”
Another problem is that politicians can disavow their untruths and other statements that later prove inconvenient. President Trump deleted 50 tweets this year, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. For example, after Roy Moore won the Republican Senate primary in Alabama, the President’s previous tweets endorsing Luther Strange for the nomination were deleted.
The practice is widespread beyond the White House. Politicians in Pennsylvania alone deleted 132 tweets this year. Corporations also sometimes get tweeter’s remorse. Last month, for instance, Volvo and Realtor.com promised to stop advertising on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News. Then they changed their minds and simply deleted their posts.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University who studied 292,000 randomly selected Twitter users over a week found that they deleted 2.4 percent of their tweets.
So, what we really need isn’t for the Library of Congress to stop archiving all tweets. We need it to archive every single tweet, even if it’s deleted. Twitter should change its terms of service to allow this.
Another reason it’s important for there to be a public record of all tweets is so that when future politicians run for office, it will be possible for us to look back at everything they’ve ever tweeted and see where they’ve stood on issues. They shouldn’t get to cherry pick their public utterances by strategically deleting tweets they regret before announcing their candidacies.
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The Library of Congress is arguing that it’s less feasible today to archive all tweets because more people are tweeting and tweets have gotten longer. In addition, “The library only receives text. It does not receive images, videos or linked content. Tweets now are often more visual than textual, limiting the value of text-only collecting,” it said.
But it’s precisely because Twitter has become such a big part of our national conversation that we need the tools to monitor it. If additional funding is necessary for the Library of Congress to be able to maintain a complete record, including visual and deleted tweets, Congress should provide it.
That’s what I think and I’m not afraid to tweet it. And if I later try to pretend I didn’t, you should have a way to know about it.