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Politics

If a Facebook exec deletes his tweet, does it still make a sound?

There's a delete button next to every tweet. One Facebook executive, in the midst of a scandal, used it to remove statements he'd made. But the internet didn't forget.

Currency and Social Media

Politicians have to keep records of their public statements, but not executives in Silicon Valley.

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On Saturday, just after 9 a.m. PT, Facebook's head of security, Alex Stamos, sent out a series of tweets criticizing a pair of stories from The New York Times and The Guardian. The stories covered a growing scandal involving a lecturer at the University of Cambridge, an analytics firm called Cambridge Analytica and data on more than 50 million Facebook accounts that was reportedly accessed without the users' consent.

Stamos' beef was the characterization of the incident as a "breach" and "one of the largest data leaks in the social network's history." The data in question, however, was obtained under Facebook's rules when Aleksandr Kogan, the Cambridge lecturer, created a personality-testing app that asked people for access to their account information. The information included their likes and location, and information from their friends' pages. 

The problem was that Kogan passed all the information he gleaned to Cambridge Analytica, a political data analytics firm that, among other things, worked for Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. Facebook doesn't allow developers to share that type of information.

Stamos wanted us to know Facebook had been deceived.

"He lied to those users and he lied to Facebook about what he was using the data for," Stamos wrote.

The tweets were a full-throated defense of the world's largest social network and the harshest language the company had used against Kogan since revealing Friday that it had suspended Kogan, along with Cambridge Analytica, from its service. 

So why didn't I link to the tweets? Because Stamos deleted them, in what looks like an attempt to remove them from the public record.

"I should have done a better job weighing in," he wrote in a later tweet, explaining why he deleted his earlier statements. "I just wish I was better about talking about these things in the reality of 2018."

Of course, nothing truly disappears from the internet, and within minutes, other Twitter users posted screenshots of his now-disappeared tweets.

Facebook didn't respond to a request for comment about its social media policy for executives and whether it allows them to delete posts made in their official capacity. Stamos didn't respond to a direct message on Twitter. And on Monday, Stamos reportedly had decided to leave the social network, though he subsequently tweeted that he had changed roles and remained "fully engaged with my work at Facebook."

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Public square, public record

About 330 million people use Twitter each month to post 280-character musings about what's on their mind. The service attracts some of the most high-profile people in the world, from titans of industry such as Apple CEO Tim Cook to celebrities including Kim Kardashian West. President Donald Trump's Twitter feed regularly sets the political world on its ear, easily changing the conversation and focus in Washington.

Not all of those tweets, however, stay in place. Factbase, a service that tracks politicians' tweets, counted more than 300 tweets that have been posted and then deleted from Trump's feed alone since 2011. In Trump's case, recent removals were ostensibly for misspellings or incorrect word use (last week, the president wrote about the "Marine Core.") But that hasn't stopped a group of people from regularly collecting and cataloging his tweets to ensure that a fuller public record exists, blemishes and all.

"While there are many gray areas that exist across personal life, private devices and messaging for transparency and record keeping, updates to public timelines on social media platforms by politicians acting in their official capacity should be preserved for posterity and public good," said Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, an open-government advocacy group that until 2016 ran Politwoops, a website tracking deleted tweets from politicians. (It's now run by ProPublica.)

"Twitter's terms of service make it clear that users have the right to delete their tweets and terminate their accounts," he added. "Politwoops exists because they privilege the public interest of preserving the speech of a specific category of users."

Everyone else isn't held to such a high standard, though. Tech billionaires and their employees, like Facebook's Stamos, don't have a legal responsibility to collect records of their social media posts.

Still, the episode raises questions about Twitter's role in public discourse and as a trustworthy source of information. Twitter makes it remarkably easy for anyone to join a public conversation from anywhere in the world. But when people say something they later regret or even want to hide, should they be allowed to rewrite history by merely pushing a delete button?

Some have called for Twitter to fix this problem itself. For example, Twitter doesn't allow you to edit tweets once they've been posted. Facebook, for its part, does offer the ability to edit posts, but also makes previous versions available for all to see.

But that likely wouldn't help Stamos, who deleted his tweets not for crimes against grammar, but rather because he's embarrassed by what he said. 

For people like him, we'll have to rely on eagle-eyed Twitter users who screenshot everything they find interesting. At least until someone creates a Politwoops for Silicon Valley.

First published March 19 at 5:00 a.m. PT.
Update, 4:08 p.m. PT:
 Adds news about Stamos' reported plans to leave Facebook.
Update, 4:37 p.m. PT: Updated to reflect Stamos' tweet.

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