Why Twitter needs Donald Trump

Trump’s brief disappearance from Twitter had some thinking he was gone for good. But he’s worth too much to the social media giant for that to happen.
Donald Trump is interrupted by a phone call during a meeting with specialists on the problem of opiate addiction, after a campaign event in Manchester, N.H., Oct. 28, 2016. Trump on Friday seized on the FBI’s announcement that it had uncovered new emails related to the investigation into whether Hillary Clinton had mishandled classified information. (Stephen Crowley/The New York Times/Redux)
 (Stephen Crowley/The New York Times/Redux)
(Stephen Crowley/The New York Times/Redux)

Briefly, on Thursday night, Donald Trump disappeared from Twitter. His account, reportedly shut down by a Twitter employee on the last day on the job at the company, was reinstated after only 11 minutes offline. Yet, for that brief period, there existed the possibility that Twitter—or someone else—had made calls for Trump’s exile from the platform a reality.

Back in February, during an earnings call, Twitter’s CFO, Anthony Noto hinted at how valuable Donald Trump is to Twitter. “The president’s use of Twitter has broadened the awareness of how the platform can be used,” he said, according to reports. “It shows the power of Twitter.”

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Few might have guessed at that time that one of the ways Twitter could be used was to bring the world to the brink of nuclear war, but of course Trump appeared to do just that in August. It was among the reasons that Valerie Plame Wilson sought later that month to raise $1 billion via a GoFundMe campaign in order to purchase a majority stake in Twitter, just to evict Trump from the platform. (The effort has raised just over $89,000 so far.)

The cost of getting Trump off Twitter might be far less than $1 billion, but still pricey, depending on what valuations you trust. Various websites exist that attempt to guess the value of a Twitter account. One called Webfluential suggests Trump’s account is worth anywhere from US$44,805 to US$54,765 per tweet (Here’s the math on that: Trump has tweeted 2,033 times since his inauguration, equal to roughly $100 million).  Something called Free Valuator puts his account’s overall value at US$17,628,720—and 39 cents. But, again, the accuracy of these estimates is questionable. A few years ago, Time magazine created a tool for users to calculate their account’s worth, but it was disabled in June 2014, after Twitter started requiring account authentication for sites to load tweet history and follower information.

But the money isn’t really what’s important when trying to guess at Trump value to Twitter’s bottom line. What matters more, probably, is data.

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Donald Trump is, in short, a great data trawler. Twitter, like any other social media app, wants your attention. It requires engagement, not merely for relevance in a strictly newsmaking sense, but because the more time its users spend on its site or app, and the more they interact with other accounts, the more Twitter knows about them. Every time Trump tweets something—be it an insult, attack, boast or covfefe—thousands of people retweet or respond to him. They often share it, and their posts are commented on and shared again and again. And all the while, Twitter gets a better idea of who its users are, who they are connected to, and where they might sit on the political or ideological spectrum. Based on that information, Twitter can then target users with tailored ads.

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Nodo’s comment that Trump shows the “power” of Twitter was right at home on an earnings call—a forum for a company to pitch its value to investors. And because Twitter is above all else a business, it’s through that prism Trump’s presence on Twitter must be seen. It doesn’t actually matter to Twitter what Trump is saying, so long as he says something, and so long as people engage with it somehow.

Trump may be a billionaire in the world of plain old money, but the planet now runs on a different currency. And when it comes to data, the asset that matters most these days, Trump may be just about the richest person on earth. He will have to do a lot of harm before Twitter allows him to disappear, especially for more than 11 minutes.