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What’s up with Twitter’s follower counts, explained for everyone — including Trump

It’s part of Twitter’s efforts to make its platform less bad.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on Capitol Hill in September 2018.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Donald Trump wondering what’s up with declines in his Twitter following isn’t actually that strange. But there’s a pretty simple explanation for that, too: It’s a result of the company’s efforts to make its platform better.

Trump on Tuesday took to Twitter to complain about … Twitter. He said the company doesn’t treat him well, is “very discriminatory,” and is constantly “taking people off list” — meaning, presumably, his list of followers. He claimed his following should be “much higher than if Twitter wasn’t playing their political games.”

In a private meeting with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey later in the day, Trump reportedly pressed the executive for answers on his Twitter following. The Washington Post reported that Trump spent a “significant portion” of the sit-down discussing whether Twitter had limited or removed some of his followers. White House adviser Kellyanne Conway told reporters on Wednesday that Trump and Dorsey had a “very productive conversation about keeping the media platforms open in 2020” and that Trump is “very concerned about what he sees as losing followers or people being blocked for certain actions.”

This isn’t a new theme from Trump — he and many conservatives have often claimed that internet companies, including Twitter and Google, are censoring them or limiting their reach online. In summer 2018, for example, Trump seized on the narrative that Twitter was “shadow banning” some conservatives after a Vice News report that some Republican officials weren’t showing up in automatic search results. And after Twitter and other platforms took action to ban far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, the president claimed that social media was “totally discriminating” against Republican and conservative voices.

Twitter and Dorsey have repeatedly denied that they are out to get conservatives. As far as the follower count thing goes, they’ve got a straightforward explanation: It’s fluctuating as a result of Twitter’s efforts to cut down spam.

What Trump’s complaining about has been going on for a while

In July 2018, Twitter announced that as part of its efforts to “build trust and encourage a healthy conversation,” it would start the process of removing tens of millions of suspicious and fake accounts from its follower counts. Specifically, the company said it would remove locked accounts — suspicious accounts it puts a temporary lock on until owners validate them and change their passwords.

In a blog post discussing the change, Vijaya Gadde, head of legal, policy, and trust and safety at Twitter, acknowledged that some Twitter users weren’t going to be super enthused with the change. “We understand this may be hard for some, but we believe accuracy and transparency make Twitter a more trusted service for public conversation,” she wrote.

For most people, she said it would result in a change of four followers at most, but for others with more follower counts, the drop would be more significant. Twitter estimated that the decision would reduce the total number of Twitter accounts by about 6 percent.

The impact of the decision became apparent fast: The day Twitter announced it, Trump’s follower count dropped by 100,000, and former President Barack Obama’s fell by 400,000. Obama has more followers than Trump — currently, Obama has 106 million, and Trump has 60 million — which explains why Obama’s following fell more than Trump’s.

According to the Post’s report on Trump’s Tuesday meeting with Twitter, Dorsey explained to the president that his follower count is fluctuating because of Twitter’s efforts to clean up the platform and said that even he had lost followers.

“Our focus is on the health of the service, and that includes work to remove fake accounts to prevent malicious behavior,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement. “Many prominent accounts have seen follower counts drop, but the result is higher confidence that the followers they have are real, engaged people.”

Dorsey’s reassurances seem to have appeased Trump — at least for now. The president tweeted out a picture of the meeting on Tuesday and said he looks forward to “keeping an open dialogue.”

Dorsey responded and thanked Trump for his time.

Twitter is working on being less bad, to mixed results

Twitter over the past year has engaged in a broader effort to make its platform a better place to be. It’s framed the initiative as one to foster a “healthy conversation.”

As Kurt Wagner explained in Recode in March, many of Twitter’s latest undertakings, ranging from cracking down on bots to building out new conversation features, have been put under the umbrella of its health push. But fostering a healthy conversation — and defining what that even means — is easier said than done, per Wagner:

Measuring the health of interactions is just one part of that broader effort, but it’s one of the more challenging and confusing parts. Removing bots and spam are technical problems. Truly understanding the health of a conversation requires things like understanding who is talking, what they’re talking about, or when someone is using sarcasm. Not all arguments, of course, are bad.

Trump in particular might pose a problem for Twitter on the health front. On the one hand, he is the leader of one of the most powerful countries in the world, and what he says — whatever the forum — matters. On the other hand, Trump tweets some pretty awful things.

This month, for example, Trump tweeted an edited video of a speech from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) intercut with footage from the 9/11 attacks. Omar said that the tweet resulted in an increase in death threats she was receiving, including on Twitter, which was slow to react and take them down.

Twitter has generally given Trump and other major public figures a pass on behavior that might not be permitted from other users. But in March, the company indicated that might soon change and said it was looking at how it might be able to label tweets that are of public interest but break its rules.

If it does take that step, Twitter will likely hear from Trump, just as it has about his follower account. And just like in this latest case, it will have an explanation that this policy applies to everyone and that the president isn’t being singled out. But it’s unclear whether Trump, who is often eager to hold up any punching bag he can find, will buy it.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.