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Twitter sees another drop in users amid fake-account crackdown

CEO Jack Dorsey says Twitter's doing a better job cleaning up suspicious activity.

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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.

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. But Twitter executives also noted that there were other reasons for the decline such as Europe's new data privacy law, known as the GDPR.

Improving the health of the social network's "public conversation" by cracking down on abuse, misinformation, echo chambers and manipulation is an important part of the tech firm's strategy for long-term growth, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said during a conference call on Thursday.

"We're happy with the progress we've made, but we have a ton more work to do," Dorsey said.

Now playing: Watch this: Twitter's user numbers go down but its stock is way up
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The company is also working on ways to make the site easier to use. Twitter could do a better job of matching users to the best accounts, conversations and events based on their interests, he said. 

"Typically Twitter has felt fairly mechanical to a lot of folks," Dorsey said. A basketball fan, for example, has to go through the site to find the right accounts to follow.

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 21 cents per share, above the 14 cents per share that was forecasted. For the fourth quarter in a row, Twitter posted a profit.

The news seemed to be to Wall Street's liking. In trading Thursday morning, Twitter shares were up more than 16 percent to $32.10 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.

First published Oct. 25 at 4:12 a.m. PT.
Update at 6:16 a.m. PT
: Included remarks from Twitter's conference call.
Update at 7:31 a.m. PT: Added movement of Twitter shares after the market open.

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