For Election Day Influence, Twitter Ruled Social Media
A line of voters on East 74th Street in Manhattan on Tuesday. More than 27,000 posts a minute were going up on Twitter by 11 a.m. Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times
SAN FRANCISCO — At around 5 a.m. Tuesday on the East Coast, the first signs of presidential chatter started stirring on Twitter, then quickly began to mushroom.
In the ensuing hours, Twitter’s 100 or so staff members working on the company’s Election Day efforts woke up and started dialing super PACs and advocacy groups to place last-minute ads in swing states. By 11 a.m., 27,000 election-related posts were swirling across the network every minute.
The volume of activity was set to soar throughout the evening and overnight, as polls closed and the results of the race between Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump came in. Twitter, meanwhile, worked to promote itself as an election destination, using live video streams with partners like BuzzFeed News, in what was set to become one of the social media service’s busiest days.
Forget about Snapchat and set aside YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. For all the bluster over the last year about which social media network would dominate the election, 2016 was no different from years past: It was another Twitter moment. From the first presidential debate in September until Monday morning, a staggering one billion-plus election-related posts raced across the network.
Election Day was a reminder of Twitter’s influence in media and the distribution of information. While the company is a constant target of Wall Street disparagement for its relatively paltry 317 million monthly users, the site was a go-to for conversation and breaking news about voting activity, malfunctions and results — with the not-so-periodic joke thrown in. By 10 p.m., 40 million posts had been sent about the election, exceeding the 31 million sent on Election Day 2012.
“For all of its flaws and the badness of the product itself, this election has proven Twitter is vital,” said Ben Thompson, the founder of Stratechery, a technology industry analysis site. “The immediacy and speed is unmatched by any other network.”
Twitter’s reach on Election Day was particularly striking in the number of posts embedded outside of the service and into news sites like The New York Times, as well as entertainment-focused sites like TMZ and Perez Hilton. Even other social networks, like Facebook, reaped the benefit of news breaking on Twitter. At 5 p.m. Tuesday, one of the most talked-about topics on Facebook in the United States was a photo on Twitter from Mr. Trump’s son Eric of the vote he cast for his father. (The photo has since been deleted.)
Twitter also remained at the social media center of this election because of the fondness that the Republican presidential candidate exhibited for the service. Mr. Trump’s use of Twitter, including firing off posts at odd hours in the morning, made the service a must-read. In recent days, The New York Times reported that Mr. Trump’s aides had had to wrest his Twitter account away from him.
Yet for how much the presidential campaign has played out on Twitter, the company, based in San Francisco, does not seem to have been able to capitalize on the attention. Twitter is struggling financially and recently explored selling itself. When no credible suitors materialized, the company last month said it would cut about 9 percent of its work force and closed some services, such as the video app Vine.
Twitter’s Election Day activity was marred by the perception that it has become something of a cesspool for disinformation, intimidation and harassment. Over the presidential campaign, it was criticized as a conduit for anti-Semitic memes, rampant misogyny and racism.
On Tuesday morning, not long after the death on Monday of former Attorney General Janet Reno, an anti-Clinton meme circulated widely across the site with a false quotation attributed to Ms. Reno. During a Nevada court case later on Tuesday when Mr. Trump’s campaign wanted to make some names of state poll workers public, Twitter again made a cameo when the judge responded that she would not do so partly because of Twitter trolls.
“By allowing everybody equal access, you run the risk that bad actors and hate speech drive out and chill the environment for others,” said Emily Bell, the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.
While Twitter has always had its share of users who spread misinformation, the issue has only intensified as the site has grown.
“These are such new technologies in terms of the sweep of history, and this is really only the first election cycle where they’ve been used widely enough to have any insight,” Ms. Bell said.
In response, Twitter pointed to its get-out-the-vote initiatives. “Our goal is to increase engagement in the election process and encourage voter turnout,” a Twitter spokesman said in a statement.
For Twitter, this Election Day has been a long time coming. The company has been preparing by ramping up its ad sales operation, with teams operating in Washington to sell and fine-tune last-minute ads aimed at undecided voters. Twitter’s Australia engineering team was assigned to support efforts to directly message users with voting information, while the company’s San Francisco headquarters was supporting the site long after polls closed.
And in one of Twitter’s largest Election Day initiatives, the company last month said it was working with BuzzFeed News on a live video broadcast from New York, alongside a cascade of streaming posts, only on Twitter. Other publishers can embed the broadcast and syndicate it to their websites, complete with the streaming Twitter posts.
“This has been several years in the making, and our whole company is really invested,” said Bridget Coyne, a senior partnerships manager at Twitter’s Washington office. “You may agree or disagree, but I believe today is a really unifying opportunity to watch.”
To make sure Twitter was on top of the opportunity, Ms. Coyne woke up at 4 a.m. Tuesday. Operating on four hours of sleep, she began working the phones and Twitter’s @gov account handle, an automated way for Twitter to connect people to polling places, voting information and state-specific rules.
She said it was a fitting way to end what she called “the Twitter election, with every step of the campaign playing out in tweets from voters, candidates and journalists.”
Mike Isaac reported from San Francisco and Sydney Ember from New York.
A version of this article appears in print on November 9, 2016, on page B3 of the New York edition with the headline: For Election Day Chatter, Twitter Still Dominated Its Social Media Peers. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe