Trump is no longer the social media king

Former President Donald Trump sitting in a courtroom during his arraignment in New York on April 4, 2023. | Andrew Kelly/Getty Images

Why the former president’s arrest was a whimper, not a roar, on Twitter, a platform designed for these moments.

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

But on Tuesday, the reaction to Trump’s arraignment on the social media platform was a bit of a snoozefest.

“When Trump got Covid in October 2020, folks were glued to Twitter and were hanging onto every moment and the schadenfreude was off the charts,” writer and activist Chip Goines said in a text. Now, Goines said, the reaction was “underwhelming” and “muted.”

There were several factors at play. For one, people care less about Trump than they did when he was president, and the arrest was visually boring and low on drama. Plus, Trump himself wasn’t tweeting. But there’s no denying that Twitter as an app has lost some of its magic as the most happening place to be during a major breaking news moment and that Trump has lost his sheen as the de facto king of social media, with Twitter being his primary platform of choice.

Data from media intelligence firm Zignal Labs shows how discussion of Trump’s arrest paled in comparison to other major news cycles involving the former president. In the 24 hours after each event, people tweeted about Trump almost two times more when he had Covid in 2020, and three and half times more after the January 6 Capitol riot, according to Zignal Labs.

On Tuesday evening, as Trump was addressing his arrest in a speech at Mar-a-Lago, the event didn’t even make the top three Twitter US trending hashtags. (They were about the Barbie movie, the rapper Roddy Rich, and Super Mario.) Only one of the top 10 trending US hashtags was even related to Trump’s arrest — and it wasn’t about Trump but about a comment that CNN commentator Van Jones made when discussing the former president’s arrest.

One of the main reasons Twitter wasn’t as happening as it would have been in times past: It’s become harder to find breaking news because of the changes made to Twitter under its new owner, Elon Musk. Some writers have stopped using the platform as much or left entirely because of Musk’s openly hostile policy toward the media, and the app’s design no longer distinguishes between verified reporters and people who pay for a check mark. Plus, Musk fired the curation team at Twitter that was responsible for surfacing valuable information during fast-paced moments like Trump’s arrest.

This all goes to show how much harder it’s become to find and share reputable news in the five months since Musk took over Twitter.

The diminished presence of journalists on the platform has a lot to do with this. Musk has personally chased them away by doing things like suspending prominent reporters and relaxing the rules against harassment that can often be targeted at members of the media. Some journalists have quit the platform altogether, and others are “quiet quitting” by staying on Twitter but tweeting much less frequently. That means there’s less buzz from the Twitter users who have historically contributed a lot to major news moments like these.

For those who are still spending a lot of time on Twitter trying to engage with news, it can be harder to separate the signal from the noise. That’s by design.

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

“In the past during major news moments, there was much more of a ‘Random person wins the internet’ vibe where you see stuff from folks you don’t follow,” Jason Goldman, VP of product at Twitter from 2007 to 2010, wrote in a text. “That’s always been the value of Twitter in live events is its ability to source stuff from the edges. I haven’t seen much from the edges.”

Another major change making it harder to follow news on Twitter: There’s no longer a hand-picked curation in the trending tab where you can go to find popular hashtags about timely events or topics. This is what Twitter’s curation team did. They’d sift through the most interesting tweets about a certain topic, verify that they were accurate, and summarize the most interesting ones. But soon after he took over, Musk gutted that team. The trending tab still exists, but it’s a shell of its former self, relying mostly on automated ranking that often isn’t as good.

Some power users are getting around the design flaws by curating their own detailed lists of accounts to follow and watching only those accounts. But the changes are turning off some of Twitter’s most avid users, who used to thrive on the platform’s efficiency for surfacing interesting tweets and conversations.

“Twitter as a breaking news platform for news junkies like me is terribly broken at this point,” said Goines.

And then there’s the issue of Trump’s lack of a Twitter presence. Despite the fact that he regained the power to tweet in late November when Musk lifted his suspension, Trump — in an uncharacteristic sign of self-restraint — has yet to make a peep on the platform.

Part of that could be because Trump has an exclusivity contract that requires him to post on social media on his own social media app, Truth Social, six hours before he posts on other sites. But there’s a big loophole to that agreement: Trump can post anything he wants related to “political messaging” or fundraising, according to SEC filings. So it’s a bit of a mystery why Trump isn’t tweeting up a storm during this major 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’ve previously reported, much of that conversation involves other users reacting to his tweets. Trump’s tweets riled up his base and acted as a foil for his critics. Without him there to instigate, Twitter is a lot quieter.

It’s inevitably worth considering that, beyond Twitter’s recent issues and Trump’s relative absence, the former president’s arrest didn’t stir up much Twitter chatter because people just aren’t that excited about Trump anymore.

In real life, protests in support of Trump were muted — by some reports, members of the media outnumbered actual supporters outside of his New York courthouse arraignment on Tuesday. Many of Trump’s most fervent supporters have also toned down their rhetoric after seeing the consequences of those who took it too far with January 6, according to some extremism researchers.

The arrest also wasn’t as visually dramatic as people imagined it might be. It was nothing like the fake AI images that hallucinated visions of Trump being handcuffed or running from the cops. Instead, Trump made a deal with authorities to have a relatively civilized arrest: turning himself in, closed-door proceedings, and no mugshot.

Some political analysts said the lack of conversation is because the charges themselves weren’t as substantive as some expected.

“From what I’ve seen on Twitter, there’s been very little piling on from the left which would seem to indicate skepticism about the charges,” Eric Wilson, a political technologist who has worked with Republican campaigns, said in an email on Tuesday. “I think if we’d learned anything new today, that would have fueled the conversation.”

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

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

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

Now, even a historic, unprecedented event like a former US president being arraigned on multiple felony charges set off just a mild buzz of activity on Twitter, rather than the raucous roar of commentary you might expect. It certainly seems like a sign of meaningful decline — both of Twitter’s relevance and that of the former reality TV host who was the main character on the app for so many years.

A version of this story was first published in the Vox technology newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one!

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