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From Star Wars to swordfish ‘sensitivities,’ here’s why the government deletes tweets

Formatting, spelling and bad puns among the reasons federal tweets have been deleted
Fans dressed as Star Wars characters cerebrate Star Wars Day in Taipei, Taiwan, Wednesday, May 4, 2016. When it comes to government information, there is no shortage of sensitive matters. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Chiang Ying-ying

When it comes to government information, there is no shortage of sensitive matters. As it turns out, a “fun fact” about ocean critters is on the list.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada tweeted about the parasites that plague swordfish last November. Two days later, the tweet was deleted.

The reason? “Sensitivities about the parasites,” the department says.

“We recognized after posting that the use of the word ‘parasite’ without more detail might leave a negative impression about swordfish and the fishery,” spokesperson Kariane Charron said in an email.

It wasn’t the only time in recent history that a government department or agency regretted hitting the send button on a social media post.

Since 2019, tweets have been deleted for everything from mundane formatting errors and spelling mistakes to threatening comments or, in some cases, puns that didn’t quite land.

Conservative member of Parliament Michael Barrett requested details about the deletions in a written question, and the government recently tabled its reply in the House of Commons.

Last September, the Privy Council Office sent condolences out on Twitter after the death of Queen Elizabeth II — but then discovered an inconsistency in the spelling of her name between the English and French versions of the message. It deleted and then reissued the post after deciding to stick with the English version of the deceased monarch’s name.

Parasites weren’t the only fodder for regret at Fisheries and Oceans. When the department tweeted out a video about the sustainability of the seafood industry, staff who had initially been angling for views ultimately decided that the “angle of the message was wrong.”

And the department found itself erasing another post, this time about a Coast Guard vessel that had transferred fuel to another ship. The tweet was scrubbed after staff discovered that the fuel was contaminated.

Staff behind a Twitter account for the government’s surplus purchasing website — which includes goods forfeited by police — kiboshed a post advertising a gold Rolex “following an (inquiry) about the watch potentially being stolen.”

There were more serious concerns at play behind some of the other decisions.

The RCMP has edited or deleted tweets from its national account at least 13 times, including last December. That’s when it apologized for promoting an online application for firearms licenses on the 33rd anniversary of the École Polytechnique massacre, when a gunman murdered 14 women and wounded 14 other people at the Montreal engineering school.

Last winter’s “Freedom Convoy” protests also prompted the Mounties to scrub at least four tweets about the Musical Ride, a specialized unit intended to promote the force. That came as a result of reported death threats against officers who are part of the unit, after their personal information was leaked through messages shared in an RCMP Musical Ride group chat.

Hate speech against women and LGBTQ people that had cropped up in the comments led the Treasury Board to delete posts themed on Women’s History Month in September 2021.

While some of the deletions highlight the vitriol that exists on social media, others show the ways that staffers tried — and perhaps failed — to use the platforms for light-hearted humour.

On one occasion, the Canada Revenue Agency tried to turn the unofficial December holiday of “national monkey day” into a chance to steer people to use its online portal.

Telling Canadians to “be a chimp-ion this tax season” and describing the perks are “absolutely a-peeling-in,” the message featured monkey and banana emojis. That was deemed too risky, as it could be “taken out of context,” the agency said.

On May 4, the National Research Council Canada tried to join in on the fun of what’s colloquially known as Star Wars Day — because “May the fourth be with you.”

But its tweet about meteorology was nixed two weeks later. The department got rid of the message, it said, after determining that the intergalactic content fell outside of its “mandate.”

—Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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