One of the obvious perks about being the president of the United States is that you can essentially snap your fingers and have something appear in your office in short order. Maybe a Diet Coke. Or maybe the head of Twitter.
President Trump snapped his fingers and summoned at least the latter of those options to the Oval Office on Tuesday. He’d begun the day with a series of tweets complaining about a series of things including Twitter which, he said, “[didn’t] treat me well as a Republican.” The service was “very discriminatory” and it was “hard for people to sign on,” with Twitter “[c]onstantly taking people off list,” which is a little hazy as a critique.
But — snap — there was Twitter chief Jack Dorsey in the White House. And in short order we learned about Trump’s primary complaint.
“A significant portion of the meeting focused on Trump’s concerns that Twitter quietly, and deliberately, had removed some of his followers, according to a person with direct knowledge of the conversation who requested anonymity because it was private,” reports The Washington Post’s Tony Romm. “Trump said he had heard from fellow conservatives who had lost followers as well.”
As Romm notes, Twitter regularly removes accounts from its system because spammers and trolls regularly create accounts to spam and to troll. A purge of fake accounts last year saw Trump lose 300,000 followers which sounds like a lot until you consider that former president Barack Obama lost 2.3 million. (Trump’s complaint about losing followers came hours after another Twitter purge removed 5,000 accounts that were spreading anti-Russia-investigation messages.)
If you’ve been hanging around in the United States for the past few years, the Trump-is-mad-about-his-audience-size story line will seem familiar. Just as was the case with inauguration crowds, Obama has more Twitter followers than Trump — nearly twice as many, in fact. This isn’t really a function of politics so much as timing: Obama was president as Twitter was growing and was included among early recommendation systems the company used to provide initial followers for new users.
But it’s the sort of thing that would gall Trump. When he talks about social-media metrics, he tends to focus not on Twitter (the platform on which he is most famous) but on his follower count across platforms. In an interview with Piers Morgan last year, Trump made that case.
“I have so many followers,” he said. “You know, I have five different platforms; you add it all up and it’s like over 150 million people. That’s a tremendous amount of people. You get the word out. You can really protect yourself from the lies and all of the things that are being said.”
Trump — also perhaps unsurprisingly — tends to inflate that statistic. Back in 2017 when he was bragging about having 110 million total followers, we tallied his accounts and found that the figure was really more like 93 million.
Trump’s long shown an affection for numbers that seem to hint at his popularity. Trump’s television show “The Apprentice” topped the weekly ratings precisely once, but he still talks about it being a top-rated show and, at one point, had fake Time magazine covers touting the show’s ratings success hanging in Trump Organization properties. Trump will generally inflate the size of his crowds at political rallies, including making claims about thousands of nonexistent people waiting outside to get in. Back in the primary, he denied speaking to a half-empty room in South Carolina despite existing photographs of the half-empty room where he was speaking.
Numbers like these are to Trump’s self-assessed value as stock prices are to Trump’s assessment of the economy.
But there’s another reason that the Twitter numbers are particularly important to Trump. Regardless of whether he believes his son Donald Trump Jr.'s unfounded claims about social-media companies like Twitter cracking down unfairly on Republicans, it’s clear that he finds the idea of losing followers worrisome.
Why? He explained why in that interview with Morgan: He thinks it's his way to speak directly to people without the filter of the media.
Trump believes — and is justified in believing — that Twitter lets him say what he wants to his supporters without the hated media weighing in on its accuracy. Twitter is a universe where what he says goes unchallenged and in which he can see in real time how many people appreciate and agree with what he says. It’s like “The Apprentice,” but with no network editors and with rating numbers that only go up.
He also sees Twitter as a platform at which he’s uniquely talented. His complaints about it on Tuesday morning began by quoting a guest of Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo saying that Trump was the “best thing ever to happen to Twitter.” In the past, Trump has called himself the Ernest Hemingway of the platform.
Hence the concern. Losing followers on the platform that spawned his success, on which he routinely gets tens of thousands of approving comments and where he can make any claim he wants, no matter how true?
correction: While Trump's tweet attributed the "best thing" quote to Bartiromo, the network informs us that it was said by guest Daniel Ives.