Republican lawmakers lost thousands of Twitter followers when the company cracked down on accounts linked to QAnon following the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol stoked by President Trump.
USA TODAY analyzed the Twitter followings of the congressional accounts for 507 members of the House and Senate in data provided by ProPublica. About 42% of the accounts – 213 – had fewer followers on Jan. 13 than they did on Jan. 6. The vast majority of those accounts –200 – belonged to Republicans.
The numbers reflect followers as of Wednesday, not long before the historic House vote to impeach Trump on allegations of inciting the riot one week earlier.
Leading conservatives have accused Twitter of political bias in its moderation policies. But Ethan Zuckerman, associate professor of public policy, information and communication at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said it’s more likely that GOP lawmakers lost followers because their followers included QAnon adherents.
“It’s not a very flattering explanation, but it’s more plausible, in my opinion, than a broad crackdown against conservatives on these networks,” said Zuckerman.
Trump ally and powerful House conservative Jim Jordan of Ohio lost the most followers: 176,672, or about 9% of the 2 million followers he had on Jan. 6. Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul shed 142,156, and House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy 103,815.
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A total of 37 lawmakers, all Republicans, lost at least 10% of their followers. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., lost 18%, Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., lost 15% and Kelly Loeffler, an incumbent Georgia Senator who was defeated in Georgia’s runoff elections, lost 14%.
Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois was one of few who bucked the trend. Kinzinger, who voted to impeach President Trump, picked up 54,671 followers, a 42% increase.
The data analyzed by USA TODAY did not specify how much of a lawmaker’s decline in followers was the result of followers’ accounts being banned by Twitter or users simply choosing to stop following the lawmaker.
“Twitter makes it nearly impossible to study follower change,” said Libby Hemphill, associate professor of information at University of Michigan.
Some prominent conservatives including Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida cried foul, accusing Twitter of wiping out right-wing accounts because of their political beliefs. The representative lost about 6% of his total followers during the past week.
“I wish I could lose weight as fast as I’m losing followers during this Twitter purge,” he wrote, while live-tweeting his plunging follower count over the weekend.
Republican follower counts plunged after Twitter purge
Twitter says it removed more than 70,000 accounts, many of which the social media company saidwere associated with QAnon extremism, to root out commentary that could incite violence after banning President Trump last week. QAnon adherents believe that Trump is their savior in the fight against satanic Democrats and deep state officials, who will be overthrown in some great awakening.
“Given the violent events in Washington, D.C., and increased risk of harm, we began permanently suspending thousands of accounts that were primarily dedicated to sharing QAnon content on Friday afternoon,” the company said.
The previous week Twitter permanently banned Trump’s former national security advisor Michael Flynn, former attorney Sidney Powell, and 8chan founder Ron Watkins, all of whom amplified QAnon content.
Twitter also stepped up enforcement of accounts that persistently spread misleading and false information, warning that repeat violations could lead to permanent suspension.
A number of Trump supporters vowed to delete their accounts after the president’s permanent suspension. “I’m a small MAGA account and I have lost 400 followers in 3 days. Goodbye Twitter. You don’t want me, I don’t want you,” one user tweeted last Saturday.
Those factors, combined with the routine removal of bot and spam accounts, likely caused dramatic fluctuations in some users’ follower counts, not anti-conservative bias, said Zuckerman, the UMass Amherst professor.
“A simple explanation for conservatives losing large numbers of followers is that: a) they were being followed by folks who posted QAnon content; and b) they were being followed by lots of fake/sockpuppet accounts,” Zuckerman said.
Conservatives accuse Twitter of bias in purge
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, lost 45,000 followers, according to Rob Bluey, vice president of communications.
“It’s just another example of conservative frustration with Big Tech,” Bluey said. “Conservatives feel they are being targeted unfairly and believe these companies tend to be controlled and run by liberals who have it out for them. At the same time, these companies always point back to their terms of service and their policies for the reason or excuse of why they took action.”
And that, he says, is “why we find ourselves in this big debate about what to do about it.”
Broadly speaking, social media companies have wide latitude to decide what can stay on their platforms and what must come down thanks to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, decades-old legal protections that shield them from liability for what users post on their platforms.
The conservative outcry over the moderation of posts, particularly those of the president, has led to multiple congressional hearings and threats to narrow or repeal the law. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey have for years tried to appease the political right.
Darren Linvill, lead researcher in the Clemson University Media Forensics Hub, said the scale of Twitter’s recent removal of accounts was unusual.
“I’m still relatively surprised they would take such sweeping action,” Linvill said. “In the past, they have shown reticence to take action that might feed the perception of liberal bias, and this certainly has alienated many loyal users.”
Twitter gets more aggressive against QAnon
In the aftermath of the Capitol attacks, Twitter has become much more aggressive rooting out QAnon and other problematic content.
In July, Twitter banned 7,000 QAnon accounts and blocked topics related to the conspiracy theory from appearing in trending topics, but that action did little to undercut its influence on the platform.
“For that purge, they used a scalpel, only getting rid of about 10,000 of the worst offenders,” Linvill said. “Clearly, this past week, Twitter switched from a scalpel to a chainsaw.”
Despite the outcry from conservatives, who described the account removals as the largest-ever Twitter purge, the company has cracked down much harder in the past. In 2018, Twitter suspended more than 1.2 million bogus accounts. Celebrities lost followers in the six figures. CEO Dorsey himself lost 200,000 followers.
Democrats had smaller declines and some big gains
The USA TODAY analysis shows that the declines in follower counts of 13 Congressional Democrats were far more modest than for Republicans. California Senator Dianne Feinstein lost the most followers with 3,425.
At the same time, prominent Democrats gained a significant number of followers. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (232,020) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (163,841) were the top gainers. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who ran as a Democrat for president in 2016 and 2020 and is part of the Senate Democratic leadership, increased his following by 134,251.
According to the Pew Research Center, nearly every member of Congress maintains one personal or campaign account and one official Twitter account. These accounts produce a flood of social media posts, far more than even a few years ago.
In the first five months of 2020, members of Congress collectively produced an average of 73,924 tweets each month.
Democrats in Congress are much more likely to use Twitter to communicate, likely because U.S. adults on Twitter are more likely to identify as Democrats, Pew found. And the number of followers for the typical Democrat has grown much more quickly than for the typical Republican. The median Democratic member of Congress has over 17,000 more Twitter followers than the median Republican.
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