Why Twitter didn’t care about Trump’s indictment

A few years ago, the historic arrest of a former US president – particularly one as polarizing and bombastic as Donald Trump – would have been a moment for Twitter. The platform is known as the first place people turn to to find and riff on breaking news with witty comments and unfiltered reactions.

But on Tuesday, the reaction to Trump’s indictment on the social media platform was a bit of a snooze party.

“When Trump got Covid in October 2020, people were glued to Twitter holding on to every moment and glee was off the charts,” said writer and activist Chip Goines in a text. Now, Goines said the response was “underwhelming” and “subdued”.

Several factors played a role. For one thing, people care less about Trump than they did when he was president, and the arrest was visually dull and lacking in drama. Also, Trump himself did not tweet. But there’s no denying that Twitter as an app has lost some of its magic as the hottest place to be during a major breaking news moment, and that Trump has lost its luster as the de facto king of social media, with Twitter being its primary Platform is optional.

Data from media intelligence agency Zignal Labs shows how discussion of Trump’s arrest has paled in comparison to other major news cycles involving the former president. In the 24 hours after each event, people tweeted nearly twice as much about Trump when he contracted Covid in 2020, and three and a half times more after the Jan. 6 riot in the Capitol, according to Zignal Labs.

On Tuesday night, when Trump discussed his arrest in a speech in Mar-a-Lago, the event didn’t even make the top 3 Twitter US trending hashtags. (It was about the Barbie movie, rapper Roddy Rich, and Super Mario.) Only one of the top 10 trending US hashtags had anything to do with Trump’s arrest — and it wasn’t about Trump, it was a comment by the CNN commentator Van Jones made when the former President’s arrest was discussed.

One of the main reasons Twitter wasn’t as hot as it used to be: It’s become harder to find breaking news since Twitter has changed under its new owner, Elon Musk. Some writers have stopped using the platform as much or have left it altogether due to Musk’s openly hostile policies toward the media, and the app’s design no longer distinguishes between verified reporters and people paying for a tick. Musk also fired the curation team at Twitter responsible for surfacing valuable information during fast-moving moments like Trump’s arrest.

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It all goes to show how much more difficult it has become to find and share legitimate news in the five months since Musk took over Twitter.

The reduced presence of journalists on the platform has a lot to do with this. Musk has personally shooed them out, for example by suspending prominent reporters and relaxing anti-harassment rules, which are often aimed at members of the media. Some journalists have left the platform altogether, and others are “quietly” giving up, staying on Twitter but tweeting much less frequently. That means Twitter users, who have historically contributed a lot to major news moments like this one, are getting less attention.

For those who still spend a lot of time on Twitter trying to engage with news, it can be difficult to separate the signal from the noise. This is intentional.

Many users have complained that Twitter’s algorithmically-ranked For You tab, which is now the app’s default homepage, shows less relevant content than before. Last week, Platformer reported that Twitter was also manually boosting the accounts of certain VIP users, including Ben Shapiro, LeBron James and Musk himself. In the future, this problem could get worse as Twitter plans to only recommend paid accounts in the For You tab.

“In the past, there was a lot more of a ‘random person wins the internet’ vibe during major news moments where you see things from people you don’t follow,” wrote Jason Goldman, Twitter’s VP of Product from 2007 to 2010 a text. “Twitter’s value in live events has always been its ability to pull content from the fringes. I didn’t see much of the edges.”

Another major change that makes it harder to follow news on Twitter: There’s no longer a hand-picked curation in the Trends tab, where you can find popular hashtags related to current events or topics. That’s what Twitter’s curation team did. They viewed the most interesting tweets on a specific topic, verified their correctness and summarized the most interesting ones. But shortly after taking over, Musk gutted that team. The trending tab still exists, but it’s a shell of its former self and relies mostly on automated ranking, which is often not that good.

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Some power users circumvent the design flaws by creating their own detailed lists of accounts they want to follow and only watching those accounts. But the changes are turning off some of Twitter’s most avid users, who used to take advantage of the platform’s efficiency to surface interesting tweets and conversations.

“Twitter as a breaking news platform for news junkies like me is terribly broken right now,” Goines said.

And then there’s the problem of Trump’s lack of a Twitter presence. Despite the fact that he was able to tweet again in late November when Musk lifted his suspension, Trump – in an uncharacteristic show of self-restraint – has yet to peek at the platform.

Part of that could be because Trump has an exclusivity deal that requires him to post on his own social media app, Truth Social, six hours before posting on other social media sites. But there’s a major loophole in that agreement: Trump can post anything he wants, related to “political messages” or fundraising, according to SEC filings. So it’s a bit of a mystery why Trump isn’t unleashing a storm at this great moment of personal and legal crisis.

In any case, without Trump tweeting on the platform, the conversation about him on Twitter dies down. As we previously reported, a large part of that conversation consists of other users reacting to his tweets. Trump’s tweets excited his base and acted as a foil for his critics. Without him to instigate him, Twitter is much quieter.

It’s inevitable to consider that, aside from Twitter’s recent woes and Trump’s relative absence, the arrest of the former president hasn’t sparked much Twitter chatter because people just aren’t that ​enthusiastic about Trump anymore.

In real life, protests in support of Trump have been muted — according to some reports, media representatives outnumbered his indictment in New York court on Tuesday. According to some extremism researchers, many of Trump’s most ardent supporters have also toned down their rhetoric after seeing the consequences of those who took January 6 too far.

The arrest wasn’t as dramatic as people had imagined, either. It was nothing like the fake AI images that hallucinated visions of Trump being handcuffed or running from the police. Instead, Trump agreed with the authorities on a relatively civilized arrest: self-report, closed-door proceedings and no mugshot.

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Some political analysts said the lack of talks was because the charges themselves were not as substantive as some had anticipated.

“From what I’ve seen on Twitter, there has been very little piling up from the left that would indicate skepticism about the charges,” Eric Wilson, a political technologist who has worked with Republican campaigns, said Tuesday in an E -Mail. “I think if we had learned something new today it would have fueled the conversation.”

The boring conversations about Trump’s arrest weren’t limited to Twitter. Even on CNN, people poked fun at the fact that there was so little to discuss that the moderators took to commenting on the existence of “many doors” in the courthouse.

So you could argue that part of the reason Twitter wasn’t dramatic on Tuesday was because the event itself wasn’t quite the spectacle that people expected.

But back in the glory days of Twitter, it didn’t take much to unleash a storm of Trump chatter (remember his “covfefe” tweet?).

Now, even a historic, unprecedented event like the indictment of a former US President for multiple crimes elicited only a faint buzz of activity on Twitter, rather than the raucous roar of comments you might expect. It certainly seems to be a sign of a major decline – both for the relevance of Twitter and that of the former reality TV host who was the app’s main character for so many years.

A version of this story was first published in the Vox Technology Newsletter. Sign up here to not miss the next one!

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