Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Switch

Trump, Obama and other high-profile Twitter users could see a ‘significant drop’ in followers. Here’s why.

July 11, 2018 at 9:53 AM

On the New York Stock Exchange on July 9, Twitter shares tumbled after a news report quantified its purge of fake and malicious accounts, noting the aggressive action could harm its user growth.(Richard Drew/AP)

SAN FRANCISCO — Celebrities and politicians, start kissing your Twitter followers goodbye.

On Wednesday, the social media service said it would begin removing large numbers of Twitter profiles that had been included in people’s follower counts — even though these profiles had been frozen by the company’s security team for suspicious behavior, rendering them completely inactive for significant periods of time.

Twitter said the most popular accounts could experience a “significant drop” in followers over the next week. Twitter appeared to be getting a head start on the purge Tuesday night: President Trump lost about 100,000 of his 53.4 million followers, and former president Barack Obama lost about 400,000 of his 104 million followers.

The move by Twitter is the latest in hard choices that the company is making to prioritize cleaning up its platform — rife with spam, trolling and other questionable practices — over metrics that inflate the service’s popularity. The company said the effort would affect about six percent of follower counts across the service. Twitter has 336 million users logging in monthly, but many of the frozen profiles were not active at least once a month.

The company’s Legal, Policy, Trust, and Safety Lead Vijaya Gadde acknowledged in a blog post that some users might be disappointed, but said the move was necessary to regain trust. “Most people will see a change of four followers or fewer; others with larger follower counts will experience a more significant drop,” she said. “We understand this may be hard for some, but we believe accuracy and transparency make Twitter a more trusted service for public conversation.”

Twitter is frequently targeted for taking sides politically, and any significant drop in follower accounts will probably result in more accusations.

Last week, The Washington Post reported that Twitter was suspending more than one million accounts a day, part of a major shift to lessen the flow of disinformation and promote what the company’s chief executive, Jack Dorsey, now calls “healthy conversations.” (The move rattled the company’s stock price, which was on the upswing, and provoked a reaction — on Twitter — from Trump).

Related: Twitter is sweeping out fake accounts like never before, putting user growth at risk

But the journey has not been easy, and this latest decision to sweep frozen profiles from follower counts may be the most painful to the company’s user base of celebrities, journalists, and leaders in politics and business.

The concept of having social media followers was pioneered by Twitter and fed into a celebrity-obsessed culture where follower-buying was accepted by many high-profile people as part of a relentless game of one upmanship.

The accounts that will be removed from follower counts could be locked for a variety of reasons, Twitter said, usually stemming from the company detecting sudden changes in behavior. This could include tweeting a large volume of unsolicited replies, tweeting misleading links, or if a large number of users block an account after being mentioned by it. The company sometimes locks an account if officials detect that the user is inputting email and password combinations from other services posted online.

“Until we confirm that everything is okay with the account, we lock it, which makes them unable to tweet or see ads,” Gadde said.

Locked accounts are not included in the tally of monthly and daily active users that Twitter reports to Wall Street, and Twitter said the sweep would not affect those metrics, the company said.

Joan Donovan, a researcher with the nonprofit institute Data & Society and an expert in online disinformation, said she suspected Twitter left frozen accounts in the follower count because it made users happy and more likely to engage with the service. “For years people have wanted Twitter to get serious about malicious bots, spam, and other problems,” she said in an interview. “But when the company went public, growth metrics were all that mattered.”


Elizabeth Dwoskin joined The Washington Post as Silicon Valley correspondent in 2016, becoming the paper's eyes and ears in the region and in the wider world of tech. Before that, she was the Wall Street Journal's first full-time beat reporter covering big data, artificial intelligence, and the impact of algorithms on people's lives.

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