BOB GARFIELD: Kids, as you now, say the darndest things. Politicians usually don’t. In this age of being obsessively on message and where an errant slip of the tongue can end a campaign in an instant, our elected leaders are nothing if not careful, which makes rescinding a tweet such a funny exercise, and unless a vigilant eye has seen the tweet come and go, most of us are none the wiser. Until now. Tom Lee is director of the Sunlight Labs Group of the Sunlight Foundation and heads up something called Politwoops where [LAUGHS] retracted tweets are resurrected. Tom, welcome to the show.
TOM LEE: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: So there have been times, and I think the late Andrew Breitbart did this famously, where a politician was caught sending out something unseemly – and I’m talking about Anthony Weiner now – and retracted it, but Breitbart found it and shared it with the world. You have this process now automated.
TOM LEE: Right. We don’t want to rely on happenstance or the good luck of having a reporter paying attention when news happens. We want to make sure that this information is accessible to everybody and that people can make individual judgments about what’s newsworthy or not.
BOB GARFIELD: Now I already talked about Anthony Weiner. Can you give me some other examples of political tweets that the politicians tried to erase from history?
TOM LEE: Sure. Probably the most politically one is Jeff Miller, a Republican from Florida. Shortly before we launched, he or someone in his office tweeted a link to online poll that questioned whether or not the president was born in the United States. This was a relatively big story and ultimately it led to him deleting his twitter account.
We had one instance of a legislator tweeting back at a follower who’d said something nice about their position, I think, on, on taxes or the deficit, only to then notice that the Twitter handle - their follower was, I think, @campyspornshack , and then clawed it back.
So it’s just, it’s not possible to be perfect at all times, you know? And I hope that we can be a part of conveying that lesson, that we’ll eventually be able to accept these folks as just human beings, not perfectly manicured and polished specimens.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, now I’m glad you brought up that subject because on the face of it, Politwoops sounds like just the latest iteration of the gotcha culture that has just so sullied the political process in this country. Is this just the automation of gotcha?
TOM LEE: I don’t really think so. I think that there’s always enough people paying attention to each lawmaker’s account that the next Anthony Weiner is gonna be caught and screen-shotted right away. Politwoops is stuff that’s a little bit more charming and personal, by and large. My favorite example from the site is Newt Gingrich tweeting excitedly about being on Leno that evening and saying that he hopes that Snooki, his fellow guest, likes zoos and animals, which I don’t think is an instance of gotcha at all, it’s just sort of a, a charming window into how this guy is thinking about the next media appearance he’s got on what I’m sure is a busy schedule.
In other cases, you know, it’s things like a awmaker tweeting to compare The Bachelor to The Hunger Games and I’m not sure why that’s pulled back exactly.
BOB GARFIELD: Because God forbid they’ve, they’ve been caught being humans.
TOM LEE: Exactly. For what it’s worth, I don’t think that lawmakers have to respond to this kind of oversight, I guess, by muzzling themselves. You can look at someone like Chuck Grassley who is a prolific tweeter and I think it’s fair to say a somewhat ridiculous tweeter [LAUGHS] in the way that he uses weird abbreviations and, and actually is really candid, to his credit, in how he communicates with his followers. And, you know, he’s received some – I don’t know – gentle teasing about that, but it hasn’t stopped him and it shouldn’t stop him.
You know, I follow a number of lawmakers – one of them that comes to mind is Claire McCaskill who’s really great about sharing the details for a schedule. Sometimes it’s campaigning events, you know, shots with constituents, other times it’s a shot from the treadmill in the hotel where she’s staying. And I have a better sense of what her life is like and what her constituents are implicitly asking her to do by electing her.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the Sunlight Foundation was actually an institution that encouraged members of Congress to embrace Twitter. I’m just curious how you think it’s gone now that so many lawmakers do in fact use the platform?
TOM LEE: Twitter, I think, used to be regarded as a toy for politicians or, or something that just was less important, but it’s become a first-class way for legislators to communicate with their constituents. And we think it should be subject to the same standards as other media. You don’t get to call a do-over when you give a bad quote or you send out a press release that’s wrong, or you’re photographed with a supporter who turns out to be an extremist or a criminal. Those aren’t things that the media or the public allows of legislators through other communications media, so why should social media be different?
BOB GARFIELD: Tom, thanks so much for joining us.
TOM LEE: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Tom Lee runs Politwoops, a project of Sunlight Labs at the Sunlight Foundation.