In purely business terms, the user Donald Trump was no longer a pure blessing for Twitter. Until the final deletion of his account, he was in sixth place of the user with the most followers and even generated three to four times as many reactions as comparable prominent members of the platform.
No wonder the company’s share price plummeted after the decision to delete Trump’s account and tens of thousands of other accounts, which continued to spread right-wing conspiracy myths even after the deadly storming of the US Parliament last week. But business with this attention generated by Trump was apparently no longer running smoothly.
Other social networks such as Facebook and the Google subsidiary Youtube have now also taken action against their user Trump. Amazon threw the chat service Parler, popular with Trump supporters and other conspiracy propagators, from its cloud servers. However, the business model of networks is based on keeping as many users as possible active in their apps or websites for as long as possible in order to show them as much advertising as possible.
Polarizing content is particularly good at attracting users’ attention. Therefore, as shown by internal Facebook papers, about which the “Wall Street Journal” reported last year, the networks are programmed in such a way that they display hate speech and false news such as that of Trump and his supporters particularly frequently. The measures taken by the corporations against it, such as warning notices if fact checkers had identified content as clearly incorrect, remained half-hearted for a long time.
But in the case of Trump, at least on Twitter, the monetization of attention apparently no longer worked. This means that the success numbers of followers, likes and retweets no longer provided corresponding income. “Donald Trump,” reports stock analyst Mark Shmulik from Bernstein Research, was the second most frequently blocked term by Twitter’s advertisers.
Many companies wanted their brands and products not to be associated with the president and his polarizing statements. As a result, they only found the term “Covid-19” to be even less favorable. In the course of the polarizing election campaign last year, some large US advertisers also turned their backs on Facebook because of the agitation there, especially from the Trump camp.
The spectacular step of banning one of the most-followed users and thus possibly losing many of his followers must also be seen against the background that these offer an increasingly less attractive advertising environment. With that in mind, social media’s response to the violence in Washington could “mark the beginning of a shift in long-standing rules on the Internet,” writes Shmulik in a note on Twitter.
Another analyst, Michael Nathanson, recalls an incident of massive anti-Semitic hate speech on Twitter against a journalist. At the time, most Twitter managers were apparently not interested in this, as extremist content also increased user activity on Twitter. This attitude seems to be changing. “We are curious whether Twitter will pursue a more aggressive approach in the coming years to keep its own platform clean” and what the effect will be on the number of users and advertising income, writes Nathanson. Because what financially more important, the improved advertising environment or the probably lower number of active users, is not yet foreseeable.
Monopoly at risk
Another factor that is difficult to assess is likely to flow into the network companies’ calculations: the threat of regulation by the state, especially in the core advertising markets of the USA and EU. 48 US states and the competition authority have just filed a lawsuit against Facebook over the merging of user data from Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram. The EU Commission has already banned this. But this dispute is only the beginning. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are calling for much broader legislation.
One of the options under discussion: The monopoly-like platforms must guarantee compatibility with competitors. For example, Facebook would have to make its users’ content accessible from other networks. In one fell swoop, Facebook would lose its key competitive advantage: billions of users who, in turn, encourage other people to use the same platforms to stay in touch.
The demands for strict regulation of the networks are as much about limiting market power as compared to smaller competitors as about polarizing social influence. In the past few years, the platforms in the USA have found themselves in a bind between an ever-broader movement calling on companies to take stronger action against hate speech and fake news, and the political right, including President Trump, who complained about censorship against their own camp .
Trump’s banishment a few days before the end of his presidency could also be interpreted as a cool reaction to the change in power structures in favor of the Democrats. It is doubtful whether that will be enough to avert the regulation of the networks called for in the past by the incoming President Joe Biden and his Vice President Kamala Harris. The shot could even backfire. Among other things, Chancellor Angela Merkel classified the blocking of Trump’s accounts as “problematic”. Like them, many politicians feel that this confirms their view that such decisions should not be left to private companies but require democratic control.
The article first appeared on ntv.de..