Twitter sees another drop in users amid fake-account crackdown

For Twitter, the months leading up to the US midterm elections have been a hectic battleground to safeguard democracy.

The social media company cracked down on fake accounts, bots and spam; fought back against a disinformation campaign tied to Iran; and encouraged its users to #BeAVoter.

At the same time, the Saudi government reportedly paid trolls on the social network to silence critics, raising questions about how well Twitter’s efforts to create a safe online space are working.

Twitter still has a lot to prove. The company not only must convince its users that they need the site to keep up with current events, to voice their opinions and to fuel social activism, but also that it’s doing enough to combat election meddling, harassment and other dark sides to technology.

And it has to demonstrate to investors that it can attract new people to the platform while competing against tech giants like Facebook and Google for ad dollars.

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On Thursday, Twitter reported 326 million monthly active users in the third quarter, which ended Sept. 30. That’s well down from the 335 million users the company reported in the second quarter, which itself was a slight decline from the preceding quarter.

The company put a positive spin on the numbers in the context of the cleanup work it’s doing.

“We’re achieving meaningful progress in our efforts to make Twitter a healthier and valuable everyday service,” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said in a statement. “We’re doing a better job detecting and removing spammy and suspicious accounts at sign-up.”

In the third quarter, Twitter raked in $758 million in revenue, above the $702.57 million that analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters expected on average. Excluding certain expenses such as stock-based compensation, the company earned 14 cents per share, matching the 14 cents per share that was forecast.

In premarket trading, Twitter shares were up about 10 percent to $30.50 apiece.

Election spotlight

As Twitter cracks down on fake accounts and spam, the company is balancing its belief in freedom of expression with concerns about online safety.

This week, Twitter suspended 18 accounts tied to far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his media outlet Infowars for violating the company’s rules against abuse.

Like Facebook, though, Twitter has faced allegations that it suppresses conservative voices. In September, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey told lawmakers that the company tries to be politically “impartial” when it reviews content on its site. It’s also denied claims that it “shadow bans” Republicans by reducing their visibility on the social network.

Twitter in August pulled down 770 accounts tied to Iran that allegedly spread misinformation and 50 accounts misrepresenting themselves as members of state Republican parties.

But Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has accused the company of pulling down the accounts of “real Iranians” including television presenters and students while not doing enough to combat anti-government bots.

Outside of election meddling, Dorsey also acknowledged this month the company needs to do more to fix “filter bubbles,” which can reinforce a user’s political bias or viewpoint about the world.

Infowars and Silicon Valley: Everything you need to know about the tech industry’s free speech debate.

Cambridge Analytica: Everything you need to know about Facebook’s data mining scandal.

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