Trump And Twitter Enter A New Phase In A Tortured Relationship
The president has not had to play by the same rules as everyone else. That’s changing. Trump And Twitter Enter A New Phase In A Tortured Relationship
When President Trump leaves the White House on Jan. 20, one thing he’ll have to hand over to President-elect Joe Biden is his Twitter account.
Well, not that one. Trump will get to keep @realDonaldTrump, but the @POTUS account, which has 32.6 million followers, belongs to the president, whoever that may be. And while Trump has rarely used @POTUS for the diatribes and ramblings that have become synonymous with his presidency, he has used it to retweet messages from his personal account to tens of millions of people.
Trump’s loss of that additional megaphone is just one way the end of his term will set off a period of transition with his preferred online platform. While both sides have something to lose, Trump may be the one who will lose more.
The relationship between Trump and Twitter has always been complicated. His constant use of the social network has made it more politically relevant than ever before, and many Americans learned to turn to Twitter to keep track of what Trump is thinking. (One exception was Republican lawmakers, who so regularly denied reading his tweets that reporters took to carrying around printed-out versions of the president’s more controversial posts when seeking comment.) While the company’s mostly liberal employees are celebrating Biden’s victory, it’s become difficult to think of the Trump presidency without also thinking of his Twitter account and, conversely, to think of Twitter without President Trump.
This hasn’t always made things easy for Twitter Inc. Trump frequently violates the company’s rules against election misinformation and has crossed the line with other policies as well, such as glorifying violence and sharing Covid-19 misinformation. But Twitter also treats world leaders differently than regular users, and Trump has avoided the actions the company would likely have taken against him were he a private citizen. That special treatment will soon go away.
Trump was, of course, on Twitter before taking office. But the atmosphere surrounding social media content moderation was much different when he was pushing the boundaries as a candidate in 2016. Twitter didn’t spend much time discussing how to police his account before he unexpectedly won the presidency.
It’s become a near constant conversation topic among employees in the years since. Trump quickly confirmed that the say-whatever-he-wants Twitter style that served him well on the campaign trail would carry over to the White House, taxing the company’s lax guidelines.
Trump posted some outrageous things that didn’t necessarily violate rules, including an edited video of himself body-slamming the CNN logo and a post referring to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un as “short and fat.” Other posts did seem to cross the line. In September 2017, Trump called Kim “Little Rocket Man” and wrote that North Korea “won’t be around much longer,” a perceived threat that led many to call on the company to block the tweet for threatening and promoting violence, which was against Twitter’s rules.
Twitter had a “newsworthiness” policy, which meant tweets from important people weren’t affected by the company’s rules in the same way as other violators. But doing nothing to Trump’s posts wasn’t a great solution either; it made Twitter look like it didn’t have any rules at all. After serious discussion at the top levels of the company, executives elected to leave the tweet up, according to a person familiar with the discussions who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
Eventually, Twitter created a solution: a warning label appended to tweets from world leaders that violated the rules but were too important to be removed. Twitter now hides such tweets behind an “interstitial,” forcing users to click to read them, and blocks users from liking and commenting on the tweets. But it doesn’t take the tweets down, which would be standard for most other users.
Tweets from former world leaders aren’t protected by this policy, which could result in Twitter removing posts from Trump that would have just been labeled if he were still president. World leaders are also mostly immune from receiving “strikes” against their accounts for patterns of violations. Once he’s no longer in office, Trump’s patterns of use could result in account freezes, suspensions, or even a ban for @realDonaldTrump.
It’s unclear whether Twitter’s business will take a hit without a president who’s turned the service into a must-read for people following U.S. political discourse. The company first acknowledged that Trump may have been good for business on an earnings call in April 2017, when then-Chief Financial Officer Anthony Noto alluded to “some evidence that we benefited from our new and resurrected users following more news and political accounts in Q1, particularly in the U.S.” Twitter added 6 million new daily users in that quarter, up from just 3 million the quarter before.
But the evidence for a Twitter Trump bump is mixed. After the initial quarterly boost, the company added just 1 million new users in two of the next three quarters. The bulk of Twitter’s user growth has come during the past two years of Trump’s presidency and much of it since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
When asked why people flock to Twitter, employees and executives point to world events as key drivers such as the Olympics or the World Cup. More than 81% of Twitter’s users are outside the U.S., and none of the most retweeted or quote-tweeted posts globally in 2019 had to do with U.S. politics. This October, Twitter’s current CFO, Ned Segal, dismissed the idea that Trump was meaningfully driving user growth.
Twitter did list Trump as the “top” politician on Twitter in 2019, but five of the top eight were Democrats, including former President Barack Obama (2), Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (4), Senator Bernie Sanders (6), former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (7), and Biden (8). Biden, whose Twitter game is pretty pedestrian, actually inspired more engagement on Twitter than Trump in September of this year, according to analytics company Conviva.
Investors don’t appear worried. When the markets closed on Tuesday, Nov. 10, Twitter’s stock was up almost 7.5% from its level when trading began on Election Day. Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey, who’s been under scrutiny from activist investors all year, received a vote of support from the board the day before the election. “Twitter may see some initial softness, but I believe they’ve outgrown any Trump dependency,” says Mark Shmulik, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein.
Trump is also unlikely to leave Twitter unless really forced to. He’s always been obsessed with his own public profile, bragging about the size of crowds at his rallies and television ratings during his appearances. Even without @POTUS, Trump has almost 90 million followers on Twitter and has said he’d have even more if Twitter didn’t artificially reduce his follower count, a baseless claim.
He often tweets dozens of times per day and will undoubtedly remain a subject of political interest. Efforts to bring conservative Twitter users to another service such as the right-leaning free-speech network Parler appear to be picking up steam, though the audience there is nowhere near Twitter’s size, and Trump himself hasn’t opened an account.
But boisterous politicians have existed forever, and new outspoken leaders are sure to emerge on Twitter. “I just expect he’s keeping the seat warm for the next colorful politician to take his place,” Shmulik says. “He’s laid out a playbook for how to use Twitter, and certainly others will try to follow.”