The second presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was the most tweeted debate ever, and the most tweeted day of the 2016 election cycle. Seventy-five million tweets were sent on Election Night, more than double the number from Election Night in 2012 — (Facebook posts only went up by 30%.) The New York Times declared that Election Day was “another Twitter moment.”
But when Donald Trump won the election, Twitter lost.
Two major problems for Twitter that surfaced during the election cycle are now only likely to get worse: slow user growth and a rise in targeted abuse. And the two are connected.
Hate speech on the rise on Twitter
In June, the the Anti-Defamation League formed a Task Force on Harassment and Journalism, “in response to a disturbing upswing in online, anti-Semitic abuse of reporters.” In October, the task force released its findings. It confirmed “a significant uptick in anti-Semitic tweets from January 2016 to July 2016,” and found that the hateful tweets were “disproportionately likely” to come from Trump supporters.
In total, the ADL found 2.6 million anti-Semitic tweets since August 2015—two months after Trump announced his candidacy. Those tweets got an estimated 10 billion impressions (reflective of reach), which ADL believes “contributed to reinforcing and normalizing anti-Semitic language—particularly racial slurs and anti-Israel statements—on a massive scale.”
This is all, obviously, bad for Twitter. No social media platform wants to be responsible for offering a platform for or “normalizing” anti-Semitic hate speech. But the ADL also pinpointed a source of the hateful tweets: Trump supporters.
Those tweeting out hate speech, the ADL says, were “disproportionately likely to self-identify as Donald Trump supporters, conservatives, or part of the ‘alt-right,’ a loosely connected group of extremists, some of whom are white supremacists.”
Trump’s win does little to temper those people; rather, it arguably empowers them. Twitter has been widely criticized for not doing enough to cut back on abuse, and reports have even suggested that Twitter trolls were the reason Twitter’s sale fell through. After a rumored acquisition offer from Salesforce.com never came, Jim Cramer of CNBC claimed that bidders were “seeing the hatred… I know that Salesforce was very concerned about this notion.”
Those hateful tweets aren’t going away unless and until Twitter acts. Back in January, Twitter tried to act when it revoked the verified badge of Milo Yiannopoulos, a British right-wing blogger at Breitbart; it backfired. Twitter was slammed for cracking down on free speech. In July, after Yiannopoulos repeatedly targeted the actor Leslie Jones, Twitter banned him completely; it restored his account two days later. What can it do about the rise of hate on its site?
“People should be able to express diverse opinions and beliefs on Twitter,” the company said in a statement to press in July after the Yiannopoulos ban. “But no one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online, and our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others. Over the past 48 hours in particular, we’ve seen an uptick in the number of accounts violating these policies and have taken enforcement actions against these accounts, ranging from warnings that also require the deletion of Tweets violating our policies to permanent suspension.”
The company is still using a form of the same default statement for all articles about abuse on its platform. Last month, it told to the New York Times, “Everyone on Twitter should feel safe expressing diverse opinions and beliefs. But behavior that harasses, intimidates or uses fear to silence another person’s voice should have no place on our platform.”
These canned statements fail to suggest Twitter has any idea what to do about abuse on its service. And there is already evidence that it will only get worse from here: a report on Friday from the Southern Poverty Law Center found that “hateful intimidation and harassment erupted across social media networks in the wake of the presidential election.” The SPLC counted 201 incidents of election-related harassment. “Often times, types of harassment overlapped and many incidents, though not all, involved direct references to the Trump campaign.”
Twitter isn’t growing quickly
Twitter’s other ongoing problem has been user growth. In the fourth quarter of last year, Twitter’s user base shrunk for the first time. In July, after its second quarter, Twitter reported slight user growth, from 310 million to 313 million monthly active users.
Twitter’s base, when it grows, is crawling at a glacial pace. Exciting streaming deals with the NFL and other sports leagues have not appeared to do much to lure new users to the platform.
Now compare that to Facebook, which has 1.8 billion monthly active users, nearly six times as many as Twitter. Facebook is such an all-powerful giant that a separate app it launched just for Messenger also now has 1 billion users on its own. Instagram, the photo app Facebook bought in 2012, has passed 500 million users. Reports have already shown that Facebook played a huge role (a negative one, many have argued) in the election, much more so than Twitter.
While journalists love Twitter as a tool for news-gathering, the shock of Trump’s unpredicted win was a reminder that Twitter is, in many ways, a small, insulated echo-chamber for the media—and an echo-chamber that has become infiltrated by trolls sending abusive attacks.
Even with all of Facebook’s very real problems (such as the rise of fake news in the feed, even as its leaders deny that Facebook has become a media company), Facebook came out of this election having reaffirmed its massive scale, reach, and influence. Like it or not, Facebook isn’t going anywhere.
Twitter, on the other hand, was overrun with abusive speech during this divisive election, and those sending out the abusive speech were emboldened, not quelled. It may be hard to believe, since every major celebrity, public figure, and politician uses Twitter regularly—and few more zealously than the next president of the United States—but the company is in serious trouble.
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.