Some of Australia’s most senior politicians have been deleting their old tweets in an apparent effort to distance themselves from scandals or smooth over any little blip that could be used against them. Using the Politwoops tool we have been able to build an archive of these tweets over the past year or so.
Federal election 2019: Why politicians are deleting their old tweets
In an election dogged by candidates quitting over questionable social media activity, they give us some insight into how treacherous Twitter can be for politicians and how curated their seemingly casual missives are.
How did we get these tweets?
Politwoops is a website backed by transparency group, Sunlight Foundation, which struck a deal with Twitter in 2015 to get access to its data and store the deleted tweets.
Since then it has been harvesting the posts from politicians all over the world, with the tantalising motto: “Explore the tweets they would prefer you couldn’t see.”
The archives show the text of the tweet, when it was posted and how long after it was deleted.
There have been seven candidates (so far) drop out of this election race after their past social media comments came to light, and the major players are doing their darnedest to distance themselves.
None more so than Communications Minister Mitch Fifield, it seems.
Two weeks ago Mr Fifield joined then Liberal candidate for Isaacs Jeremy Hearn and tweeted his support, saying:
“Terrific afternoon at Doyle’s Bridge Hotel to support Jeremy Hearn, Liberal Candidate for Isaacs!”
A few days later the party dumped Mr Hearn as its candidate after it was revealed he posted a conspiracy-laden anti-Muslim rant online.
Cue a hasty retreat from Mr Fifield, who promptly deleted his three-day-old tweet.
Mr Fifield’s office did not respond to questions over exactly why he deleted the tweet.
He’s not the only one
Not all deleted tweets are so politically sensitive, but the practice is rampant in Australian politics.
Scott Morrison has deleted at least 34 tweets in the past year, and Bill Shorten has culled at least 50.
Mostly they’re for minor mistakes.
Mr Morrison is responsible for perhaps the most infamous delete in recent memory, when his account posted a bizarre clip from Question Time featuring the Fatman Scoop song Be Faithful.
It was quickly pointed out the lyrics to that song take a rapid turn for the sexual, and the PM deleted the tweet and replaced it with a mea culpa.
Mr Morrison also tweeted about the Boer War in December, only to delete it a short time later.
Other Twitter users were quick to jump on the Prime Minister, pointing out the 219 Australian casualties the Virtual War Memorial of Australia listed on its honour roll were across all conflicts on that day in history — not just the Boer War.
The State Library of Victoria lists the total toll for Australia in the Boer War at more than 600.
Mr Shorten, meanwhile, seems to have some of the more slippery thumbs in the business, racking up a healthy list of deleted tweets containing typos.
Whether it’s misspelling Ballina or correcting poor grammar, Mr Shorten is a master of revision on the fly.
And it’s hard to land that stinging attack when you fluff your lines mid-sentence.
There’s a raft of others: Tony Abbott writing “countries” instead of “country’s”; or Chris Bowen writing “that” instead of “than”.
Mistakes they considered so egregious they were deleted and reposted moments later.
It could be worse.
Labor senator Doug Cameron wanted to reach out to a columnist, but seemingly mistook a reply for a private message and posted his personal mobile number for all to see.
Then there are the accidental retweets that are far from on-brand.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg helpfully retweeted a scathing assessment of his performance from Labor’s Kristina Keneally. It was up for all of five seconds.
Nationals leader Michael McCormack retweeted a clip from an interview in which he ducked a question over Mathias Cormann’s travel expenditure while dressed as Elvis.
That one came down after less than a minute.
The intentional delete/retweet
The Politwoops’ archive also points to another tactic used by the more savvy Twitter accounts.
The manoeuvre goes like this:
1. Tweet something;
2. Retweet your own post a short while later to keep it kicking on;
3. Delete your own retweet;
4. Retweet the original post yet again;
5. And repeat.
It’s a way of playing the system to hopefully ensure your initial content keeps popping up in your followers’ feeds without having to post new items.
We can track this in Politwoops because every time a politician un-retweets their post, it gets noted as a deletion.
And One Nation leader Pauline Hanson appears to be prolific with the practice, having deleted her own retweets at least 200 times in the past year.
Ms Hanson’s chief of staff James Ashby said the senator tried to tap into all the social media channels to full effect, and other parties would “kill” for the level of engagement she gets.
Like any platform, Twitter is another weapon in a politician’s arsenal as they attempt to woo voters or attack their enemies.
Seven candidates who didn’t make it to election day
• Labor’s Luke Creasey withdraws after rape jokes revealed
• Liberal Peter Krillin resigns over plot to stop gay people becoming MPs
• Jeremy Hearn dumped from Liberal party over Islamophobic rant
• Liberal Jessica Whelan steps down over anti-Muslim social media posts
• Wayne Kurnorth quits Labor over anti-Semitic conspiracy theory
• Liberal Gurpul Singh resigns after controversial comments
• Jay Dessi quits as Greens candidate over ‘distasteful’ sex comments
Mr Morrison and Mr Shorten have nearly half a million followers between them, and their armies of MPs enjoy hundreds of thousands more.
Since the election was officially called last month the leaders have tweeted more than 250 posts, which have been liked or retweeted more than 240,000 times.
But with such posting power comes a certain risk as voters read great meaning into every tweet, retweet, like or comment.
Just ask former PM Malcolm Turnbull, who caused quite the stir late last year for simply following an anti-Tony Abbott Instagram account.
He later shot back that this didn’t imply anything, and he’s probably right. But it points to the grey area we operate in.
Meanwhile, when MPs Greg Hunt and Christopher Pyne’s accounts were both caught “liking” tweets containing pornographic material, it sparked claims of hacking and calls for the Australian Federal Police to throw their full suite of resources at the issue.
So, with just days to go until the federal election, expect politicians of every alignment to play it safe on Twitter and pray there are no more ghosts-of-comments-past that come back to bite candidates.
Or, failing that, they can follow the advice of one of the most brutal Twitter takedowns in recent memory: “Delete your account.”