Twitter, Facebook and Google are being called to account for their role in the deception that has surrounded the 2016 election campaign, especially from social-media accounts linked to Russia. The situation is especially vexing for smaller, financially shakier Twitter.

Share story

SAN FRANCISCO — Fires need fuel. In this era of political rage, a Twitter account that called itself the unofficial voice of Tennessee Republicans provided buckets of gasoline.

Its pre-election tweets were a bottomless well of inflammatory misinformation: “Obama wants our children to be converted to Islam! Hillary will continue his mission.” A mysterious explosion in Washington, it said, had killed one of Clinton’s aides, raising her “body count” to six. Another proclaimed, “Obama is the founder of ISIS.”

The account, @TEN_GOP, eventually reached more than 130,000 followers — 10 times that of the official state Republican Party’s Twitter handle. It was one of the most popular political voices in Tennessee. But its lies, distortions and endorsements came from the other side of the world.

@TEN_GOP was a Russian troll account devoted to stoking division in the United States, according to a report earlier this month by RBC, a Russian media company with a history of independence. Twitter declined to even discuss the account, which had posted 10,000 tweets by the time it was finally shut down in August. That was more than a year after Republican officials in Tennessee had first complained about its misrepresentations to Twitter.

“It’s disappointing and disheartening to see how an outside actor can pinpoint areas of division in America and then exploit them,” said Brent Leatherwood, the former executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party. “You think we’re getting to a better place and then something like this throws a Molotov cocktail into it.”

Perhaps no form of communication has ever established itself so quickly and so thoroughly as social media. Hundreds of millions of people around the world have grown to rely on it for news and information. Now Twitter and Facebook are facing a moment of reckoning. They, as well as Google, are being called to account for their role in the deception and chicanery that has surrounded the 2016 campaign, especially from accounts linked to Russia.

How much damage did those accounts do in the months leading up to the presidential election? No one knows, not even the companies themselves, which are slowly and grudgingly releasing data about what happened. Next week, they will send executives to testify at congressional hearings, the beginning of an attempt to calculate an answer.

Google and Facebook are powerful and wealthy companies that are skilled enough to ride out this controversy. But for Twitter — influential, yet smaller and far less financially successful — the situation is more vexing. Its devotion to open discourse is drawing an abundance of troublemakers who threaten to drive out the well-intentioned.

Many of Twitter’s users have long been frustrated with the site’s scattershot efforts at preventing abuse and harassment. Twitter’s critics have counted at least a half-dozen times over the past few years when the company has said it was taking an issue seriously but little seemed to change.

The debate about abuse and harassment has even fed complaints about Twitter’s most prominent fan, President Donald Trump, and his use of the site as a cudgel against everyone from Kim Jong Un of North Korea to Jemele Hill of ESPN. Twitter’s guidelines forbid “threats of violence” and “targeted abuse” prohibitions that some users have tried to hold up against the rhetoric coming from Trump’s account.

In recent weeks, Twitter has updated its terms of service to better fit the company’s evolving views on hosting the president. That includes allowing tweets under the “newsworthy” label it might otherwise ban. But the platform was forced to apologize for the confusion it generated in trying to explain the changes, tweeting “We need to do better.”

Twitter declined to comment this week on Trump. Biz Stone, a Twitter co-founder, was dismissive of concerns over the president’s Twitter habits in an interview shortly before rejoining the company in the spring. “It’s too early to say we’re all going to die because Trump has a smartphone and can say what he wants to a lot of people,” he said.

There are already signs that Twitter’s bottom line is feeling the effects. An analysis by the research firm eMarketer this week anticipated the number of worldwide Twitter users growing ever more slowly in the years to come: 4 percent this year, 3 percent in 2018, 2.5 percent in 2019. Since other parts of social media — most notably Facebook — are growing faster, fewer than 1 out of 10 social-media users will be on Twitter by 2019, eMarketer suggested.

Twitter said Thursday that it added 4 million users in the third quarter of this year. But it also said that it had overstated its user base by 2 million in the previous quarter, meaning the total user base rose by only 2 million, to 326 million, in the third quarter.

Its revenue dropped in the quarter from 2016, the company said, but not quite as much as expected. Its net loss narrowed, however, and the company suggested that a profitable quarter may come soon, pushing the stock up 18.5 percent Thursday.

Twitter’s acting general counsel, Sean Edgett, will represent the company in at least one congressional hearing next week. When the company originally briefed congressional investigators a month ago, the reviews were bad. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the ranking minority member on the Intelligence committee, called it “inadequate at every level.” He added that Twitter had “failed to understand how serious this issue is.”

On Tuesday, Twitter said it would “dramatically” increase ad transparency on the platform while also allowing people to report inappropriate ads or ads they simply do not like. Political ads will be specially marked. Warner called Twitter’s plan “a good first step.”

On Thursday, Twitter banned all advertising by two Russian news outlets, Russia Today and Sputnik, saying they “attempted to interfere with the election on behalf of the Russian government.”

But the real problem facing Twitter is less with ads than with trolls, who take advantage of the anonymity the platform provides to wreak havoc. The still-incomplete history of @TEN_GOP bears out how reluctant or unable Twitter is to police such activity.

@TEN_GOP sprang to life in November 2015 bearing the seal of the state. It billed itself as the “Unofficial Twitter of Tennessee Republicans,” but from the beginning, state Republican leaders knew something was fishy.

“We thought the handle, @TEN_GOP, was particularly weird,” said Leatherwood. “That’s not how you abbreviate Tennessee. Also, Tennessee law prohibits using the seal for political purposes.”

The real problem, though, was the vitriol it spewed. “It was using anti-immigrant and outright racist sentiments,” Leatherwood said. “It offended me as a conservative and a Christian, and went counter to what we were trying to do here.”

Since the account did not represent the Republican Party, even unofficially, Leatherwood twice reported it to Twitter for misrepresentation. He said others had as well. He never heard back.