Twitter, founded in 2006, was initially designed as a “microblogging” platform for posting short public messages that would be aggregated in reverse chronological order. Now a publicly-traded company, it made its initial public offering (IPO) in 2013, making Jack Dorsey, one of its founders and its current CEO, an instant billionaire. At the time of the IPO, Twitter operated at a loss and did not post a profit until the first quarter of 2018. Nearly all of its revenue is from advertising but some of it comes from licensing the use of the data it gathers from users to third parties. Its share of the digital advertising market falls well behind Google, Facebook, and Amazon and has a relatively small user base of 126 million daily active users. The tension between efforts to grow the user base and removing bots and abusive accounts that damage the brand has been a constant challenge for its business model.
How Twitter Influences the News
In spite of the fact it has far fewer users than Facebook or Snapchat, Twitter has a strong influence on news sharing because the platform design favors immediacy and provides a quick snapshot of trends. For example, the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO, and subsequent protests were barely visible on Facebook but dominated Twitter before journalists arrived to cover the story. Journalists rely on Twitter as a crowdsource platform – to get a sense of what is capturing public attention – as well as a place to promote and share new stories. An April 2019 survey from Pew Research suggests Twitter users in the United States are not demographically representative, but tend to skew left and young. Users of the platform in other countries may have a different profile.
Public figures have also found Twitter a platform for promoting ideas and getting reactions in real time. Unlike Facebook, Twitter does not rely on algorithms tied to your personal information to tailor what you see in your feed (though it uses algorithms to screen out some illegal or abusive material). What news you see primarily depends on who you follow and what they post or retweet in real time. Changes made in the platform have in subtle ways changed how people interact on Twitter. For example, one preliminary study showed allowing users to comment on a tweet by “tweet quoting” rather than simply replying appears to have somewhat improved the civility of political discourse and extended the conversation to a more politically diverse group of users. Further changes are in the works.
The use of Twitter by President Trump has bolstered the political influence of the platform far beyond its user base. It has also caused significant controversy. Users won a lawsuit against the president for blocking their accounts. (When public officials use social media, they are acting as agents of the government in a public forum. “The viewpoint-based exclusion of the individual plaintiffs from that designated public forum is proscribed by the First Amendment” according to the court’s decision, which is under appeal.) President Trump has, in other ways, benefitted by using Twitter as a public megaphone, frequently bypassing normal White House channels to announce policies or personnel decisions.
Twitter has also benefited from his frequent use. One analyst predicted the company would lose $2 billion if the president stopped using the platform, amounting to 20 percent of the company’s market capitalization. Though many users have reported tweets posted by the president for violating the platforms rules, his account has not been suspended or banned. In 2018 Twitter responded to complaints (without naming Trump) by announcing public figures have a special “newsworthy” status which exempts them from enforcement imposed on less prominent users, basically saying rules can be broken if you are important enough.
Twitter does not have a “real names” policy; users can create multiple accounts and do not have to disclose information about themselves beyond an email address. In its terms of service, Twitter forbids impersonating others, but allows parody and fan accounts. Users are able to choose whether to share location or other information and whether to have ads targeted to them or not. The data Twitter collects is used to build profiles for advertisers and is shared with some third parties; this appears to be a growing part of its business.
Twitter was the first social media company to introduce a verification process to enable some users to provide additional proof of identity and earn a “blue check” by their handle. Though some people mistake that as a marker of quality or authority, it simply means the company ascertained the person behind the account was real and had gained enough notoriety to be recognized with a check mark. Twitter was criticized for giving white supremacists who organized the Unite the Right rally verified accounts, removing them only as the rally approached. In 2018 the verification program was suspended so the company could redesign the program. The application process remains unavailable.
Automated accounts (bots) have presented a problem for the platform. The company acknowledged the wide use of bots and deleted tens of millions of suspect accounts in 2018, though recent research suggests real accounts supporting Trump in an organized mobilization may have been more influential than bots in the 2016 presidential election. That said, bots on Twitter continue to be a concern for 2019 elections in Sweden, Canada, Israel, India, and elsewhere.
Though Twitter is known for broadcasting opinions, it has also become a place where communities of interest gather and share information. Academics use it to share their research and keep in touch with others in their disciplines (#Twitterstorians and #PhDchat are examples) or tweet during academic conferences. They also make use of Twitter’s application program interface (API) for analyzing public sentiment. “Black Twitter” became a phrase to describe the high percentage of African Americans (and black people elsewhere) using the platform for communication and activism. Twitter has also become a favored platform for white supremacists in part because it allows multiple account creation and anonymity, enforces its policies inconsistently, and is reluctant to take action against prominent extremists.
What Twitter Should Do
All social platforms that depend on data-gathering and advertising as a business model face a conundrum: algorithmic mechanisms that encourage engagement can also encourage extremism and drive away users who encounter hate speech and abuse. Publicly-traded companies may be reluctant to take action that could depress earnings, but are also at risk if not taking action damages their brand or results in lawsuits or government sanction. In the public annual report to shareholders required by the Securities and Exchange Commission, Twitter identifies numerous risks faced by the company. Their 2018 transparency report report states the company over 200 million accounts were reported for “spam or abuse” in six months of 2018. Roughly a quarter million accounts were sanctioned for “abuse” and around 43,000 for making violent threats. The company also conducted a review of mistakes made during the 2016 election and outlined its efforts to combat malicious activity during the midterm election of 2018. Yet researchers have identified Twitter’s problematic delay in dealing with problems that can be identified quickly. Likewise, the findings of the Amnesty International report suggest the company does not take threats and abuse seriously enough.
The confluence of political influence and hate speech can be illustrated by President Trump’s endorsing a misleading video about Minnesota’s US Representative Ilhan Omar by retweeting it and adding a misleading comment, inflaming an already dangerous situation for the legislator who had been targeted with death threats on Twitter. A cybersecurity expert was able to find accounts aiming violence at the lawmaker within a couple of hours. He argues the platform could take greater responsibility by monitoring obvious threats and taking quick action. This will require a combination of algorithmic monitoring (which has shown some success) and human intervention, which should be made a priority. Hiring social scientists trained in anthropology, psychology, and communication studies could complement research and development efforts. There should also be some process for quarantining and saving records of account action that is under investigation by law enforcement, journalists, or researchers.
Additionally, like all advertising-funded platforms, laws must be passed and regulations enforced that make it possible to clearly label the source of funding for campaign advertisements and to ensure compliance with all campaign finance laws in countries where Twitter operates. Further, as licensing personal data becomes an increasingly important revenue stream, the company should prepare to comply with new privacy legislation such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) passed in the European Union and, as cyber risks proliferate, take measures to prevent breaches and hacks.
Finally, the company appears to have a dysfunctional management culture that makes it difficult to make hard decisions or implement improvements. Given the platform’s influence on the flow of information, particularly political news, it should make efforts to build a stronger, more stable and inclusive leadership structure.
Recommended Reading and Viewing
“The Black Feminists Who Saw the Alt-Right Coming” by Rachelle Hampton, Slate, April 2019.
How Twitter Needs to Change (Interview with Jack Dorsey) TED, April 2019.
Twitter and Teargas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest by Zeynep Tufekci (Yale, 2017).