Future Tense

What Will the Guy Who Built an Archive of Trump’s Tweets Do Now?

If he has to, he’ll follow Trump to Parler.

Person in a red hoodie seen from the back, holding an iPhone open to the suspended Twitter account of U.S. President Donald Trump
Welp. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Friday, Twitter permanently banned President Donald Trump after he incited a mob that attacked the Capitol and continued to send out tweets that the platform believed could lead to more violence. The removal of @realDonaldTrump means that none of the missives from Trump’s presidency—or his life as a private citizen, when there was always a tweet—is readily available on the platform. One of the only places to access his past posts at this point is the Trump Twitter Archive, a database of all the president’s tweets that news outlets like USA Today, Snopes, the BBC, and the Washington Post have relied on. I spoke to Brendan Brown, a San Diego–based engineering manager for a clean energy company who founded the archive in 2016, to get his thoughts on Trump’s now-ended tenure on Twitter. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Aaron Mak: What was your immediate reaction to Twitter’s ban on Friday?

Brendan Brown: I don’t actually agree with the ban, necessarily. I don’t envy Twitter and other tech companies, because I think they’re in a very difficult position. There’s been a lot of intense pressure on both sides of the debate. They’re private companies, so they can make whatever decision they want. It’s not technically a First Amendment issue, but they also have a public square kind of function. I think there’s a public interest in allowing the president to use your platform, and starting to ban any controversial leaders seems unwise to me. Flagging and limiting the spread of their posts seems like a good middle ground.

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Did you see this coming? Did you think a ban would ever happen?

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I did not. People have been calling for it for a really long time. Facebook took the step of banning him until at least the 20th, but I didn’t really expect it. His tweets are embedded in probably hundreds of thousands of articles on the internet, and all of a sudden that’s all gone and broken. Any videos that he uploaded can’t be accessed unless someone else archived that. I didn’t, because I wasn’t thinking that it would just disappear one day.

Going back, how and why did you start the Trump Twitter Archive?

I started in summer of 2016. I was watching the election like everyone else. I had seen a couple articles featuring pretty alarming and sometimes amusing tweets from Donald Trump. They were just wild things that you’d never expect from someone who’s running for president, the presumptive nominee. I started looking for some kind of data dump of everything he’s ever said and realized that nothing existed to do that. Twitter did not really allow you to pull someone’s entire body of work. I was mostly just personally interested in having this kind of application where you could easily search for whatever you want and things automatically appear. I came up with a very basic solution that went to his @realDonaldTrump page and just programmatically scrolled down on the page forever until everything loaded, and then scraped all that information and built a simple web app with a focus on search around it.

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I was just interested in having something like that for myself. Then I was able to start finding all these crazy tweets that people hadn’t really looked at in a really long time. I curated lists of those and thought this could be an interesting website that, if people are looking for more information about Donald Trump and are still kind of on the fence, this could give them some information that they didn’t have. I emailed it to a couple of journalists who had been reporting about his Twitter usage. It got picked up in the Atlantic and then went from there.

Are there any memorable Trump tweets that really stick out to you from the past four years?

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I have a collection of all the people he’s insulted as president. That was always what stood out to me the most: He’s acting like a teenager bullying people online. But now it wasn’t just Twitter users or celebrities; he called his own secretary of state “dumb as a rock” and “totally ill prepared and ill equipped to be Secretary of State.” Things like that are pretty insane. He did that for his former secretary of defense, attorney general, Fed chairman, multiple national security advisers, chief of staff—and then he’s insulted 40-plus senators, dozens of House reps, all kinds of federal officials from director of the CIA to FBI, dozens of governors, mayors, world leaders, and then hundreds and hundreds of journalists. That’s pretty out-of-the-norm behavior for the president of the United States.

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Fact-checking websites have used your archive many times to prove that a viral supposed Trump tweet is actually fake. What do you make of fake Trump tweets?

It’s always disappointing to me when I see that because there’s such an impressive body of work from him where you don’t need to go in and fake something. He has a tweet about everything controversial, and he talks about everything. There’s no reason to fake things. Be skeptical about the information you see, especially if it’s just an image.

Before Trump was banned, were you planning to keep the archive going after he left office?

Yeah, pretty much. I was assuming that he would continue to tweet in the way that he always had been, and so it would continue to be important. If he goes to Parler, and Parler still exists in the next week, maybe I’ll look at doing something there. He can always call in to any shows that will have him. It’ll be interesting to see—the media at large hung onto his every word and reported every tweet—whether they’ll continue to do that if he’s on some fringe platform or whether that hot air dissipates.

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You’d keep tracking him on another platform?

I think so. If it’s something like Parler, and Parler picks up a lot of steam, it’s important for people to be aware of what’s being said on there and recording it in some fashion, at least for him. But I don’t have Parler. I’ve never looked at that, and I don’t know if they have APIs.

With Twitter’s ban, do you think that the archive takes on a new significance? Do you think it’s more important?

It does in the moment. I’m hoping that Twitter publishes their own archive and you don’t have to rely on just a random website from a guy on the internet. I’ve always made the data freely available. Thousands of people have downloaded it. People use it in academic papers or for articles. I made sure to go and update the final files. I’ve been contacted by a couple organizations where they just want to make sure that they had it too. It’s a very decentralized way, and copies of the data are floating around. It’d be great if there was just an official source from Twitter where it was a universal source of truth.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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