The clash between President Trump and Twitter reached new heights over the past few days. Twitter started to more rigorously police Trump’s posts, while Trump tried to weaken legal protections that shield social media companies like Twitter from liability for what their users post.
But as Trump tries to clamp down on Twitter, and Twitter similarly cracks down on the President’s posts, one question remains: Who needs who more?
Three experts say the answer is simple: Trump, who depends on Twitter to reach his base, especially during an election year that revolves around the global pandemic.
“Right now, traditional campaigning is going to be at best problematic through at least summer,” said Steven Livingston, director of the Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics at George Washington University. “By picking a fight with Twitter, he’s actually attacking the principal mechanism he needs to run in a COVID environment.”
While Twitter may be Trump’s favorite way to reach his supporters, Twitter, which generated $1 billion in revenue in 2019, relies very little on him, said Ronald Josey, analyst at investment bank JMP Securities. The service has nearly 33 million daily active U.S. users. If Trump quit Twitter, relatively few of his 80 million followers would leave, Josey says. And they would account for only a sliver of the service’s revenue.
“If he were to leave, it would have a small impact on users and an even smaller impact on monetizable users,” Josey says. Twitter is “very diversified in terms of traffic.”
The rift between Trump and Twitter heated up on Tuesday after Twitter, for the first time, labeled as misinformation one of the President’s tweets about mail-in voting. In the days that followed, Trump threatened “big action” against social media and then signed an executive order aimed at removing legal protections for social media companies.
Unbowed, Twitter again went after Trump on Friday for tweeting, in part, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” referring to the riots in Minneapolis. The company appended its first-ever warning specifically for politicians, telling users that the tweet had glorified violence. To view the actual tweet, users must click on the disclaimer.
For years, Trump has criticized social media companies, arguing, along with fellow conservatives, that the services unfairly censored their posts. Meanwhile, liberals complained that social media companies failed to delete posts containing hate speech and violence.
Trump’s executive order does little to help him achieve his ultimate goal, which is the freedom to say whatever he wants online. If regulators weakened the current federal protections for social media companies, Twitter and Facebook would likely ratchet up their policing of content rather than ease it, experts agree.
“He’s so angry they did something to him, he’s slapping back at them,” says Joshua Tucker, professor of politics and codirector of the Center for Social Media and Politics at New York University. “The irony of this is…he is pushing us toward a world where the platforms are going to be much quicker to pull down content.”
Trump often says that Twitter is the only outlet that lets him reach Americans directly without a news media filter. And he obsessively uses it to air his grievances, stoke controversy, and threaten companies and world leaders. “Twitter is such a powerful political tool for Trump that it’s inconceivable he would give it up,” Tucker said. “What would he do all day?”
He was asked as much on Thursday. Trump responded that he wouldn’t quit tweeting, because he uses Twitter to fact-check “fake news.” “If we had a fair press in this country, I would do that in a heartbeat,” he said of leaving Twitter, though it was hardly convincing. “There’s nothing I’d rather do than get rid of my whole Twitter account.”
Trump could always leave Twitter for another social media service, like Facebook, which has been more lax in how it polices political speech. But he may not be able to attack other politicians as effectively as he does on Twitter. There is “value in the network because there are other people on it that you want to be with,” Tucker said.
Trump’s followers give Twitter more traffic. And all traffic is good traffic, Josey of JMP said. But when it comes down to business, Trump’s absence does not pose an existential threat to the company. However, it does complicate matters for the country’s tweeter-in-chief.
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