Inside Twitter, angst over the Trump effect

Inside Twitter, angst over the Trump effect
© Hill Photo Illustration/Garrett Evans

Twitter insiders are at odds over whether to celebrate President TrumpDonald John Trump5 things to know about Boris Johnson Conservatives erupt in outrage against budget deal Trump says Omar will help him win Minnesota MORE’s headline-grabbing use of their platform.

Some Twitter executives have praised Trump’s prolific Twitter habit, saying it brings welcome transparency to government. Others lament the way Trump has used the social media platform in his rise to power. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Trump used Twitter to help him connect directly with his base in the 2016 presidential race and has often marveled at its ability to shape the agenda and drive coverage on cable news.

“Without the tweets, I wouldn’t be here,” Trump told The Financial Times in April, adding, “I don’t have to go to the fake media.”

Since his inauguration, Trump has been using Twitter to call out his detractors, target companies and conduct foreign policy.

Wall Street analysts have said that Trump’s tweets — and the free publicity it generates — have boosted Twitter’s financial fortunes after a long period during which the company was criticized for stagnant user growth.

The company’s stock soared after its last quarterly earnings report, which contained figures on user growth that shattered Wall Street estimates. Trump was largely seen as the reason.

One financial analysis firm, BTIG, specifically advised clients to buy shares of Twitter because of the president.

“The incessant news flow from the Trump administration playing out on Twitter and the ensuing global reaction pushes Twitter users to be increasingly engaged with the platform,” BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield wrote in a letter to clients.

“The Twitter President gives Twitter a second chance,” he said.

Twitter has acknowledged the Trump bump but publicly attributed the growth to “product changes” and “marketing” during its last earnings call.

But even if Trump has improved Twitter’s bottom line, not everyone involved with the company is happy about it.

“It’s a very bad thing, Twitter’s role in [Trump winning the election],” Twitter co-founder and board member Ev Williams told The New York Times. “If it’s true that he wouldn’t be president if it weren’t for Twitter, then yeah, I’m sorry.”

During a commencement speech at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln at the beginning of May, Williams described Prometheus, who in Greek mythology stole from the gods to aid mortals, as an allegory for Twitter and Silicon Valley.

“What we tend to forget is that Zeus was so pissed at Prometheus that he chained him to a rock so eagles could peck out his guts for eternity,” Williams joked to the crowd. “Some would say that’s what we deserve for giving the power of tweets to Donald Trump.”

A week later, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who has butted heads with Williams, characterized Trump’s use of the platform more favorably.

“I believe it’s really important to hear directly from our leadership. And I believe it’s really important to hold them accountable,” Dorsey said during an NBC News segment.

When Trump floated the idea of canceling future White House press briefings — in a tweet — earlier in May, Twitter’s chief operating officer, Anthony Noto, even suggested the briefings be replaced with tweets.

“May I suggest questions submitted and answered via Twitter. A perfect record and we distribute to the world not just those with a TV,” he tweeted.

An early investor in Twitter, Chris Sacca, quickly shot back at Noto.

“Tweets enabling lying despots in their relentless attempts to subvert democracy are not your best look,” Sacca wrote.

Fellow Silicon Valley venture capitalist Hunter Walk jumped in with a quote on the president from the chief executive of CBS: “Remember Les Moonves: ‘Trump might not be good for America, but he’s great for CBS.’ ”

Noto clarified in a subsequent tweet that he doesn’t support Trump canceling the White House press briefings, adding that Twitter is “not a substitute for a vibrant and free press.”

Even though Trump has given Twitter a short-term boost, it might not last. The president frequently derides his critics with tweets, to the point where some say he’s violating Twitter’s rules and should be suspended from the site.

The constant controversy generated by Trump’s tweets could turn some people off from using the site, analysts say.

“It’s my view that having Trump on the platform, tweeting as he is, would probably be an incremental negative,” Richard Kramer, a senior analyst at Arete, an equity research firm, told NPR. “It’s fitting a long-term pattern on Twitter, in that the content of the platform often strays into abusive language and is not what you would call in the advertising community ‘brand safe.’ ” 

While Twitter’s divisions over Trump might be among the most pronounced in the technology space, its employees are not the only ones who are grappling with their company’s relationship with the president. 

Palantir founder and Silicon Valley royalty Peter Thiel was a major Trump surrogate during the campaign and still advises him on some matters. Yet in April, Palantir CEO Alex Karp was shown on video from 2015 aggressively bashing Trump.

Palantir, like Twitter, may be caught between opposition to Trump among its employees and what is best for business. Palantir makes a significant portion of its revenue through contracts with the CIA, the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Karp, Williams and others at Twitter and Palantir who take issue with the president may just have to hold it in. Both companies have done little to indicate that they’ll change anything in regard to their relationship with the president.

“I think that the important thing is that the American people need to intervene and use their own judgment,” said Dr. Robert McNulty, director of programming at Bentley University’s Hoffman Center for Business Ethics. “If Trump’s tweets have not been accurate or misleading, they create a paper trail of his positions, and it’s up to the public to hold him accountable.”