Twitter Had a Pretty Weird Week

A positive earnings report, a reputable survey of its users, and two meetings with politicians reveal a company unwilling to confront its most urgent problem.

Facebook has been slammed by bad news almost on the daily for months now, almost all of it shenanigans of the social-media behemoth’s own making — like guessing how many billions in fines the F.T.C. is mulling or putting the email passwords of some 1.5 million users out there in plain text for anyone to scoop up. No wonder Sen. Elizabeth Warren wants to break the company up into its constituent parts, along with Amazon and Google.

But Twitter is not to be outdone. The week started off rather decently for the tech firm, with an earnings report that came in significantly higher than analyst expectations, causing the stock price to leap by 15 percent and instantly generating $4 billion in new wealth. The first quarter of 2019 is the last period for which Twitter will report numbers in terms of monthly active users (MAUs), opting instead to parse usage by a different metric, “monetizable daily active users” (or mDAUs).

Social-media growth in the United States has slacked off in recent years, with all the major companies — Facebook, Twitter, Snap — flatlining or even shrinking. Indeed, Twitter lost more users than it gained from the second quarter of 2017 to the third quarter of 2018. But whether the use of mDAUS’s constitutes legerdemain to conceal lackluster engagement or not, Twitter’s went from 26 million to 28 million in Q1.

That’s barely 1 percent of Facebook’s 2.27 billion MAUs, but the numbers — whether selective or not — are at least going up. The very next day, the Pew Research Center released a survey of more than 2,000 users that determined that 10 percent of adult users produce 80 percent of all tweets while the median user tweets only twice a month. The average power-tweeter is younger, more affluent, and better-educated than the general population, and also Democratic-leaning — which probably isn’t a surprise even to journalists who are occasionally besieged by orthographically challenged, profile pic-less, and nationalistic troll accounts with fewer than 100 followers. Twitter’s strongest devotees are also quite politically inclined and skew female, but they don’t differ from the gen-pop in other respects.

Additionally, the bottom 90 percent of all Twitter users have a median follower count of only 19. Nineteen! Even the loneliest Facebook users have exponentially more friends than that, to say nothing of the bottom 90 percent — and statistically speaking, probably a lot fewer of them are bots. But of the many non-bots who tweet on the regular, only one spews lies and invective from the confines of the White House residence during Executive Time. 

President Donald Trump met with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey for 30 minutes on Tuesday to air grievances about how the platform that has bent its own rules for him is actually brutally unfair. Perhaps taking talking points from staunch ally Rep. Devin Nunes — who’s been keeping a low profile on Twitter lately, taking pics of wine rather than suing his own “mother” for a quarter-billion dollars — Trump had demanded answers about the alleged practice of shadow-banning and threatened to get Congress involved.

According to Wired, Dorsey and the two executives who accompanied him put out some boilerplate pre-buttal about why they took the meeting in the first place. According to a Twitter spokesperson, they were there to chat about “Twitter’s commitment to protecting the health of the public conversation ahead of the 2020 U.S. elections and efforts underway to respond to the opioid crisis.” The the Trump re-election team has already made it clear that they a) they’re not going to join the Democrats in rejecting any hacked oppo research or otherwise ill-gotten intel and b) they’re basically encouraging the Russians to get involved. Just because something is stolen doesn’t mean the American public doesn’t have a right to know, Rudy Giuliani told Meet the Press last weekend.

Doesn’t that make a fool of Dorsey et al., who have faced intense scrutiny over just this issue? They couldn’t even walk out of that meeting with a tentative commitment from the president not to delegitimize their own company in the act of undermining American democracy in their quest for a second term.

Then came the weirdest part. Dorsey called Rep. Ilhan Omar to explain in full that no, Twitter would not be more aggressive in policing white nationalists — even the ones sending her death threats. He “emphasized that death threats, incitement to violence, and hateful conduct are not allowed on Twitter,” according to a statement, but there will be no concrete action beyond the possibility of “annotating” tweets somehow. Dorsey is keenly aware that his staff probably leans left (albeit with a healthy amount of anarcho-libertarians thrown in the mix) but his willingness to hang them out to dry in pursuit of some false sense of balance is odd — especially when it’s Twitters own users who have complained the loudest about the incitements to violence on the platform.

Algorithms are a canard. Conservatives who complain about anti-conservative bias when Twitter bans the occasional Nazi or alt-right provocateur don’t seem to realize they’re showing their hand. In moving to appease phantom conservatives that Twitter is officially neutral, Dorsey gives them that much more leeway to call for the murder of a sitting United States Congresswoman, one who also happens to be among the first Muslim women elected to the House. And the closer such positions migrate to the Republican mainstream, the more Dorsey’s dilemma seems to tighten. 

The president, it seems, is simply too valuable to police. It’s just another permutation of the Trump Doctrine: When you’re a star, they let you do it. 

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