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Twitter Finds Meaning (and Madness) Under Donald Trump

The social platform was in bad shape last year, but it found an unlikely support system in an antihero

(Sam Taylor Illustration)
(Sam Taylor Illustration)

This week, The Ringer is taking time to travel all the way back to … last year. Or a few months ago. We’re diving into the not-so-distant past to check up on what happened to that one lady, or to track the rise of an online social movement. Welcome to Recent History Week, where we’ll explore events you may have forgotten about and remind you why they still matter.

Once a company takes on the smell of failure, it’s hard to wash off. Apple was odorous for more than a decade before staging a turnaround. Microsoft is finally in the middle of a long-sought cleanse. And a year ago, Twitter had the whiff of a company that couldn’t live up to its ambitions. After a high-flying IPO in 2013, in which the company pitched itself as "an indispensable daily companion to live human experiences," its stock tumbled, user growth stalled, and online abuse mounted. For the Facebook users (out of a billion-plus) who never bothered to join Twitter, their most likely reference point for the platform was the "Celebrities Read Mean Tweets" series on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, which painted the social network as both banal and cruel. "They think of it like a troll site where everybody is mean," says Michael Pachter, a research analyst at Wedbush Securities. "Which … it’s true. Everybody is mean."

Public confidence in Twitter as a company reached its nadir last summer. The company’s stock closed at an all-time low of $14.02 in June 2016. A torrent of organized racist and misogynist attacks on actress Leslie Jones last July threw the social network’s abuse problem into sharp focus. By the time fall arrived, Twitter was in acquisition talks, but then corporate giants like Disney and Salesforce decided the beleaguered company was more trouble than it was worth. With Twitter left in the lurch, company morale dropped. "Internally, basically everybody thought it was going to happen," a former Twitter employee who was at the company during the election (and who asked to remain anonymous) says of the acquisition. "We were in a ship that was moving but we were also rudderless."

Amid all these issues, politics was gaining increasing clout on the platform. Twitter had already been around for two presidential election cycles, and Barack Obama had been labeled the "first social-media president." But he used Twitter more like an ingratiating brand than a person. (@BarackObama, in fact, was run by a political nonprofit separate from the White House during Obama’s second term.) But then Donald Trump, an avid user of the platform, was elected president. He approached the network completely differently. He sent tweets himself or dictated them to aides, providing an unusually transparent glimpse into the ideas, grudges, and conspiracy theories that occupied the mind of a powerful rising political figure. "Tweeting happens to be a modern-day form of communication, y0u can like it or not like it," he said during an October debate. "I’m not unproud of it, to be honest with you."

As a candidate, Trump’s tweets were largely used as easily gotten grist for the content mill. Once he was elected president, though, each 140-character missive took on newsworthy import — particularly when messaging that he was being investigated after firing former FBI director James Comey, that he shared "facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety" with Russia, and that the United States military will no longer accept transgender people. Journalists and pundits fact-check them in real time. Anonymous members of the #Resistance reply directly to the president with insulting takedowns. Trump’s tweets have landed on NBC Nightly News, the front page of The New York Times, and across the late-night circuit. Any media outlet even tangentially related to current events has become an amplifier of his digital messages.

This has been both a boon and a burden for Twitter, which has long thought of itself as a kind of free-speech free-for-all where the elevation of non-mainstream voices could yield profound results. On one hand, Trump — and the power users who feel compelled to respond to him — has clarified Twitter’s mission of creating an essential real-time news source and conversation hub. "We believe Twitter is the best at showing what’s happening in the world and what’s being talked about," chief operating officer Anthony Noto said on a conference call discussing financial results in April. "Having the political leaders of the world as well as news agencies participating and driving that is an important element to reinforcing what we’re best at."

At the same time, Trump’s behavior on Twitter is at best combative, and at worst abusive and dangerous. The president uses the platform to try to intimidate everyone from North Korea to an 18-year-old girl who asked him a question at a political forum. He also spreads inaccuracies that often manage to propagate further than any future debunking ever could. These behaviors are what have most threatened Twitter’s community, and they’re being exemplified by the president. Many have been calling for him to be banned from the platform since the election, but Twitter has largely avoided addressing the issue directly. "We apply our policies consistently," Del Harvey, Twitter’s head of trust and safety, told The Wall Street Journal. "Rules are rules."

Rules aside, it’s obvious why Twitter wouldn’t want to ban the person giving its platform renewed relevance. In fact, the company is soliciting more Trump content. After he mused that he might cancel future press briefings, Noto asked the president if he might want to hold a Twitter Q&A instead. That would be an arena where Trump could field softball questions and avoid accountability — great for Twitter, bad for democracy.

It remains unclear just how much of a "Trump bump" Twitter will enjoy as the president continues to use the platform. In the first quarter of 2017, Twitter gained 9 million new monthly users, its largest growth spurt in years. But in the second quarter, user growth was flat globally, and actually declined in the United States. It’s possible that social media users outside the Beltway are already growing tired of talking Trump all day, every day.

Trump’s Twitter dominance hasn’t occurred in a vacuum. The company has been aggressively rolling out new features to boost engagement and make the platform less intimidating for newcomers. In early 2016 Twitter introduced an algorithmic feed, eschewing its long-standing reverse-chronological order in favor of a system that ranks tweets based on personalized taste. The new feed has boosted engagement across multiple metrics, according to the company, and is probably a big reason tweets from tiny accounts now go viral multiple times per day on the platform (the algorithmic feed also likely helped seed Trump’s Twitter dominance, Slate’s Will Oremus has posited). Twitter has invested heavily in live video from sports leagues and media companies, and it now has a streaming app that offers a lean-back viewing experience. A new television ad campaign starring Chance the Rapper uses the tagline #SeeEverySide to try to cast the cacophony of Twitter’s endless arguments as an opportunity for enlightenment.

Most importantly, the company claims it has gotten serious about its abuse problem. Twitter’s laissez-faire attitude toward policing its platform became increasingly reckless as trolling grew more widespread and threatening. Over time the issue became "existential," according to the former Twitter employee. "If we don’t tamper down abuse on the platform, we’re not gonna exist long term because people won’t want to use it," the employee says. Twitter has introduced a mixture of algorithms meant to suppress offensive content, user tools to better report harassers, and more aggressive hands-on policing to bat down the wave of trolls. According to a company blog post, its efforts are working — Twitter is taking action on 10 times as many abusive accounts every day compared to a year ago, and users faced "significantly less" abuse in the past six months.

But even on this front, Trump may be undermining Twitter as much as he’s helping it. Trump supporters tend to swarm the people he attacks online, whether they’re public figures or not. His presence has also prompted the rise of multiple armies of bots meant to elevate conservative talking points. And his detractors call for his assassination by the thousands. Twitter has finally become the town square under Trump, but some of the town criers are secretly robots, and everyone has come armed with a sharpened rhetorical weapon.

People say they don’t like this type of crude discourse — a study by the Pew Research Center found that more than a third of American internet users were "worn out" by the onslaught of political discussions on social media, while about half said those discussions were less respectful and more angry than political discourse in other places. And that was before the election. I abandoned Twitter for several months after the election because of the never-ending spigot of political vitriol, and I thought the platform might suffer as people tried to tune out the site’s now-constant state of alarm. Instead, people have taken up sides — as Trump-loving patriots, valiant members of the #Resistance, or jesters offering dark commentary with ironic remove. Any political stance benefits Twitter, which wants to see its user base and cultural relevance continue to grow. "I believe it’s really important to hear directly from our leadership," CEO Jack Dorsey said in May about Trump’s Twitter presence. "And I believe it’s really important to have these conversations out in the open, rather than have them behind closed doors. So if we’re all to suddenly take these platforms away, where does it go? What happens? It goes in the dark. And I just don’t think that’s good for anyone."

Twitter is obviously good for Trump, and Trump is seemingly good for Twitter. But the codependency that has formed between the president and the Twitter community has changed the platform. Twitter used to be special because it lacked a center of gravity. The platform’s collective fascination could turn from the humorous to the horrific in a single day, and its users’ relentless focus on things that don’t get enough mainstream coverage, like police brutality, could catapult those topics into the national conversation. Now, though, it’s beginning to feel like most of our timelines inevitably lead to Trump. (This is probably worse for me, someone who mostly follows journalists; Twitter declined to share any data about how much politics has subsumed other topics of discussion.)

"Because Trump is such a prolific tweeter, specifically on that platform, he may end up displacing some of the attention that a year ago was being paid to other issues," says Deen Freelon, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism. "Just think about something like the Trending Topics list, where you have nine or 10 slots. You can think about that as a metaphor for human attention. If Trump’s tweets are pushing certain things off the agenda, then that just demonstrates the fact that we have limited amounts of attention to pay to these kinds of things."

Twitter the Company and Twitter the Community have long been distinct entities that are sometimes in tension. I’d posit that Trump has created a third version — Twitter the Diary of the President of the United States, which is having its own drastic impacts on the ways the two earlier concepts function. Twitter’s lackluster earnings report on Thursday shows that Trump may not ultimately be the company’s ticket to fortune (its stock tumbled 10 percent on signs that the Trump bump was over). But it may be a while yet until we fully understand how much Trump has altered Twitter as a gathering place where people fight, learn, and live day after day. "I don’t think he’s changed the platform," says Freelon. "I think he’s shown the platform can do some things that we weren’t necessarily previously aware that it could do."