Advantage, Elon Musk.
“Musk Says Whistle-Blower Deal Lets Him Drop Twitter Purchase,” reported Jef Feeley for Bloomberg news yesterday.
So began the latest episode in a long-running, made-for-television drama starring Elon Musk, Twitter’s ownership consortium, and the rest of America.
Or, at the very least, the 1 in 5 Americans currently on Twitter.
Or are they?
That is the central question this saga has been trying to answer since Elon Musk first announced his intention to buy Twitter a million news cycles ago.
The mega-drama, a cross between The Bachelor, Million Dollar Question, and Dallas, has been unfolding for the entertainment of millions ever since. The story has such promise; interesting premise, compelling characters. It’s hard to turn away without finding out how it all ends.
How many of Twitter’s users are really bots? And could a rag-tag group of muckraking, gumshoe cyber-detectives, led by Musk and his merry band of lawyers, possibly find out for sure?
Elon Musk, after all, is one of Twitter’s more active and popular accounts; he has always purported to be the platform’s biggest fan. He has called Twitter essential to democracy, a powerful tool for free speech.
What could turn Twitter’s erstwhile biggest cheerleader into its arch nemesis?
After all, nothing can touch Twitter. Certainly not Truth Social or any other recent upstart social media platform. But certainly not Facebook either, however many name changes it undergoes.
Nothing lasts forever, however; no empire, however powerful, endures eternally. Nowhere is this more brutally true than in Silicon Valley, where today’s big breakthrough is already yesterday’s news and the iPhone you bought last year might as well be a Motorola Razr.
MySpace went the way of Blockbuster Video long ago, and as ignobly. Facebook, once the titan of the social media landscape, has become like the mall; dying a slow death by advertisements and irrelevance.
Social media has taken quite a beating over the past few years in general. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, new attention was paid to the adverse and exploitative potential of social media and its impact on the culture.
Most social media users didn’t need an explosive new study and news report to tell them doom scrolling, FOMO, and comparing the carefully posed and scripted online lives of rich celebrity influencers with the messy innards of our own wasn’t good for mental health.
Most social media users also know, or should know, that a certain number of the accounts on the platform aren’t populated by real humans.
Information warfare campaigns, from election interference to propaganda campaigns are constantly at work on social media platforms; Russia, China, and Iran, certainly- but other nations, too.
Even nations friendly to each other have their own agenda. They use social media, like any other tool, to achieve those ends.
Advertisers are also at work. Fake reviews, fake followers, testimonials bought in bulk, slick marketing campaigns. Who hasn’t been taken in by a good social media advertisement for some “miracle product” everyone is raving about?
Some retailers, it is becoming increasingly clear, aren’t getting better at making things; only better at advertising worse products.
All told, social media has presented society, individuals, the government, elected officials, tech company executives, billionaires, and corporations a number of difficult and nuanced problems.
One of those problems has been censorship. There are quite a few Twitter users who would prefer far more censorship; does Iran’s rouge government really belong on Twitter?
There are still others who would prefer far less censorship. A number of high-profile recent incidences of social media censoriousness have played out badly in the public sphere.
Censoring something as false and misleading misinformation- only to have it later turn out to be true- is embarrassing to social media companies engaged in such practices, to say the least.
When Musk first wanted to buy Twitter, he was lambasted; when he backed out, he was lambasted even more. Twitter’s board groused about the original offer, then somehow unanimously approved it.
Once Musk got cold feet, Twitter’s board went so far as to sue Musk for breaching his contract to buy the social media platform for $44 billion.
This irony has not been lost on the commentariat class.
“Twitter and Musk, once leery of each other but then mutually attracted through the force of commerce, are now essentially in a twisted love-hate psychodrama,” wrote Kevin T. Dugan for the New Yorker on July 12, 2022. “Twitter, initially resistant to getting bought, is trying to force a sale upon Musk, who wanted the deal in the first place but has gotten cold feet.”
As the potential buyer of Twitter, Musk naturally wanted to look under the hood; he wanted to know how many of Twitter’s users were fakes, bots, advertiser accounts, etc.
He says Twitter has not provided this information to his satisfaction. Twitter says it has.
The latest episodes in the melodrama have fallen heavily in Elon Musk’s favor.
On September 1, 2022, a top cybersecurity expert claimed the number of bots on Twitter far exceeds the 5% number Twitter executives tout; “80 percent of Twitter accounts are probably bots.”
A week later, Elon Musk scored a major win in court when a judge ruled he could use evidence from a Twitter whistleblower in his legal case.
“Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, the company’s former head of security who reported directly to the CEO, claimed that leadership misled board members and government officials about potential vulnerabilities that left the platform open to hacking, foreign manipulation, and spying,” reported the Daily Wire on August 23, 2022.
“Zatko alleged that Twitter officials do not have the resources or motivation necessary to determine the number of bots on the platform,” the Daily Wire continued.
“Twitter Paid Whistle-Blower $7 Million for Silence, Lawyer Says,” reported Bloomberg.
On September 8, 2022, there was another serious blow to the Twitter Board’s case against Musk.
“Bob Iger Says Disney Was Set to Purchase Twitter in 2016,” began Entrepreneur Magazine on September 8, 2022. “The former Disney CEO commented on the number of fake accounts on the platform and explained why Disney ultimately cut the deal short.”
“We did look very carefully at all of the Twitter users- I guess they’re called users?- and we at that point estimated with some of Twitter’s help that a substantial portion- not a majority- were not real,” Bob Iger told the audience at Code Conference in Los Angeles last week, possibly unaware of the Musk V. Twitter legal case.
In dropping that little bombshell, Iger has given new heart to Elon Musk’s defenders and new hope that the central question in this ongoing power struggle between two of the wealthiest, most powerful forces in the nation, may eventually be answered to the satisfaction of everyone.
How many bots are on Twitter?
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)