In an alternate universe, if the president sat down with the chief executive of one of the leading social networks, they might discuss the ways the networks give oxygen to the worst elements of society—including white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Or they might talk about the need for better ways of engaging around substantive issues such as climate change.
But in our universe, according to a report from The Daily Beast, the president spent most of his time with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey this week focused on a different issue. “Trump has repeatedly griped to associates about how his predecessor, Barack Obama, has had more Twitter followers than he has, even though—by Trump’s own assessment—he is so much better at Twitter than Obama is,” The Daily Beast said.
“The president stated his belief that he had lost some of his roughly 59 million followers in anti-Trump, anti-conservative Twitter purges, according to a source familiar with the meeting”(Obama has more than 100 million followers). Dorsey reportedly explained to the president that everyone loses followers now and then because Twitter is constantly trying to rid the service of automated accounts or “bots” (according to a service called Twitter Audit, about 12 percent or 7.2 million of the president’s followers are likely fake).
The president’s focus on his own follower count isn’t surprising, but neither is his allegation that his numbers are dropping because of some nefarious anti-conservative bias on the part of Twitter. This has been a consistent theme both for Trump and for other representatives of the conservative and alt-right movements in the US—the idea that both Twitter and Facebook (not to mention everyone else on earth) are biased against them. There were not one but two congressional hearings last year dedicated to exploring this idea, in which various senators expressed their opinion that Facebook was somehow censoring conservative voices like the YouTube creators known as Diamond & Silk, and that Twitter was doing likewise.
In March, Trump said at a press conference that his government planned to look into the matter. “I have very many, millions of followers on Twitter and it’s different than it used to be,” he said. “Things are happening. Names are taken off. People aren’t getting through. I do think we need to get to the bottom of it.”
Both Facebook and Twitter have bent over backwards to try to address this perception, holding multiple closed-door meetings with prominent conservatives, including senior members of the Republican National Committee, a number of Fox News hosts such as Greta Van Susteren, and a variety of conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation.
The alleged bias question has been a hot button issue for Facebook in particular ever since the company was hit by allegations that the editors it hired to put together a feature called Trending Topics were removing conservative sites from their index. Facebook denied this was the case, but fired all of the editors involved, met with conservative leaders in a kind of mea culpa tour, and then eventually shut the entire feature down. Twitter has been fighting a similar battle ever since Dorsey admitted in an interview last year that the company’s employees have a left-leaning bias.
Dorsey was clearly aware that his meeting with Trump might cause some controversy within Twitter. In an email thread obtained by Motherboard about the upcoming event, he said: “Some of you will be very supportive of our meeting [with] the president, and some of you might feel we shouldn’t take this meeting at all. In the end, I believe it’s important to meet heads of state in order to listen, share our principles and our ideas.”
What compounded the problem for some critics, however, was that there was such a lack of transparency about what the two talked about. Apart from the anonymous reports by The Daily Beast, there was zero public information about the discussions. Trump tweeted that it was a “great meeting,” and Dorsey responded by thanking the president for his time. A Twitter spokesman said only that the CEO “had a constructive meeting with the president, and they discussed Twitter’s commitment to protecting the health of the public conversation ahead of the 2020 US elections.”
Here’s more on Twitter and the president:
- Unsettlingly erratic: Journalists complain about some of the wild things the president tweets during the average news day, but his feed provides plenty of material for stories like this one from CNN just last week, about “what Donald Trump’s unsettlingly erratic 24 hours on Twitter tell us.” Twitter, says CNN analyst Chris Cillizza, “is the best window into a president’s mind we have ever had. It is a real-time reflection of what Trump not only is thinking about but what he cares about.”
- Blocking not allowed: In 2017, the Knight First Amendment Institute sued the president for blocking his critics on Twitter, arguing that his Twitter account is effectively a public forum created by a government official, and therefore excluding people from it is a breach of their First Amendment rights. A judge agreed with the Institute in May of last year (although she did say the president could mute people via his account), but the government has since appealed the decision. Oral arguments were heard in March.
- An outrage magnet: The 2016 article that initially triggered the Trending Topics fiasco was a Gizmodo story entitled “Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News,” which quoted a former journalist who worked as an editor on the Facebook project. Last year, former Gizmodo editor John Cook said while he stood by the story, he admitted that the headline was deliberately designed to fuel outrage.
- The 10 percent: A new report from the Pew Research Center looked at usage of Twitter by Americans, and found that 80 percent of the content on the social network (content posted by adults and excluding tweets by institutional or corporate accounts) is created by about 10 percent of the users on the service. Given that, and the fact that only about 22 percent of American adults use Twitter at all, if the president thinks he is talking to the average voter when he tweets, he is probably sadly mistaken.
Other notable stories:
- At the funeral of Lyra McKee, the Irish journalist who was shot and killed earlier this week, a priest got a standing ovation for asking why it took her death to get political attention. And the editorial board of The Capital Gazette in Maryland, where five journalists were killed last year, wrote an essay saying Lyra was in their thoughts.
- Elaine Allaby writes for CJR about the case of Daphne Caruana Galizia, an investigative journalist in Malta who was killed by a car bomb in 2017. At the time, Galizia’s assets had been frozen by a precautionary warrant issued in conjunction with libel suits brought by Malta’s economy minister, just two of the more than 42 civil libel suits that were open against her at the time of her death.
- James Kanter, a former correspondent for The New York Times and The International Herald-Tribune, argues in a piece for The Atlantic that the European press corps is not equipped to cover the European Union properly. Most of the news coverage of the EU’s decision-making is “stubbornly parochial,” Canter says.
- Atossia Araxia Abrahamian writes for The Nation about an interview she did with Mark Sabbatini, the editor, writer and publisher of a newspaper based in the Arctic called Icepeople. It is the world’s northernmost alternative weekly paper, which Sabbatini published out of a café in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, a remote archipelago that is governed by Norway near the Arctic circle.
- The Religion News Service, Associated Press and The Conversation have formed a partnership to create a global religion-journalism initiative that it says would provide “balanced, nuanced coverage of major world religions, with an emphasis on explaining religious practices and principles behind current events and cultural movements.”
- Lizzo, a singer who has soared in popularity thanks in part to her frank statements and her body-positive message, didn’t react well to a lukewarm review of her new album, which Pitchfork said was “burdened with overwrought production and awkward turns of phrase.” The singer tweeted in an all-caps message that people who review albums but don’t make music themselves “should be unemployed.”
- Jeff Larson, who has now taken over as Editor-in-Chief of The Markup, the data-driven journalism startup he co-founded with his former ProPublica colleague Julia Angwin, has written a Medium post explaining why she was fired, saying leadership and management issues led to a “breakdown in trust.”
- The former publisher of a newspaper in Port Townsend, Wash. says in an essay carried in his former paper, the Port Townsend Leader, that the family-owned title is engaged in an old-fashioned newspaper war with the publisher of the nearby Peninsula Daily News, part of a chain controlled by Canadian-based Black Press that owns more than 170 regional newspapers.
- Twitter announced it is adding a new feature that will allow users to report tweets that might be likely to mislead voters during an election. The service said the feature would be rolled out first in India and then the EU and finally around the world. “Any attempts to undermine the process of registering to vote or engaging in the electoral process is contrary to our company’s core values,” Twitter said.
- When White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was questioned as part of the Mueller investigation, she said her comments about how countless FBI agents supported the firing of director James Comey were “a slip of the tongue.” But a sharp-eyed reader of The New York Times pointed out that when she made those remarks she was clearly reading from a prepared statement.
Corrections: An earlier version of this newsletter misspelled former New York Times correspondent James Kanter’s name, and also described the Pew Research incorrectly.