Content Warning: I am about to conduct a close reading while violating the principles of the New Criticism.
I woke up nervous this morning, so we’re going to read this internet artifact closely: a semi-viral tweet showing Elon Musk discussing Twitter bots in some sort of blurry conference room. However, there is an audience – you can hear them laughing.
“Anyone who uses Twitter is aware that the comment threads are filled with scams, spam, and many fake accounts. It seems like an exaggeration for Twitter to claim that the number of real unique people is over 95%. Anyone have this experience? ?” — @elonmusk pic.twitter.com/XivtjhEBu3
— Pranay Pathole (@PPathole) August 6, 2022
Here’s a slightly edited version of what Musk says in that video snippet:
…it’s extremely basic and anyone who uses twitter is aware that the comment threads are full of spam, scams and just a bunch of fake accounts. So it seems more than reasonable for Twitter to claim that… the number of truly unique people you see commenting on Twitter daily is over 95 percent… That’s what they claim. Anyone have this experience? [laughter from the audience and from Musk] Exactly.
The video is from the All-In Summit in May (his comments start at 2:00am or so). At the time of this writing, Musk had signed the agreement to acquire Twitter for $44 billion.
Now for the content. Musk says that “everyone who uses Twitter is aware that the comment threads are full of spam, scams, and just a bunch of fake accounts.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration – my answers are top notch – but it strikes some truth. No one can claim not to have noticed bots, spammers, and people impersonating Musk to get your money. I noticed many of them especially in Musk’s mentions.
Musk goes on to ask if anyone has the experience of interacting with real people 95 percent of the time, leading to audience laughter and his own giggles. The intention here, with apologies to John Crowe Ransom, is to invoke contempt for the notion that 95 percent of Twitter accounts are human.
If you watch the longer video – not just the clip – Musk is being interviewed. The clip on Twitter breaks off before Musk suggests that if you think you interact primarily with people, “there’s a bridge I’d like to sell you.” (I…guess I’d like to hear about the bridge?) Then he suggests the “lowest estimate” of fake accounts is about 20 percent. That estimate doesn’t appear to be based on anything — if there is a source, Musk certainly doesn’t cite it.
Strategically, “why am I not more popular” is not a good question to ask in public
Musk also boasts that he has the most popular tweet of all people, about taking over Coca-Cola “to put the cocaine back in‘, a stunt I would support if I believed Musk could actually close the deal. Musk wonders why this popular tweet isn’t even more popular? Literally, he says: “Twitter says the monetizable daily active users [on the platform] is 217 million. So why would the most popular tweet of all time basically only account for two, two and a half percent of the total user base?”
As the camera cuts back to the personal event, Peter Thiel appears to be holding his forehead. (I’ve never felt closer to Thiel, Musk’s PayPal co-founder, in my life.) One possible answer, Elon, is that a lot of people use reverse-chronological feeds. So if you’re not tweeting while actively watching Twitter, you haven’t seen it. Or maybe, just maybe, they didn’t find it very funny! Strategically, “why am I not more popular” is not a good question to ask publicly because someone will answer it.
Musk continues to intervene. (Again, I edited that quote slightly to make it sound like he was speaking in full sentences.) “Something doesn’t add up here. My concern is – it’s not 5 or 7 or 8 percent, but is it maybe 80 percent or 90 percent bots? I definitely know there are some real people on Twitter. Is it an order of magnitude? Is it 50 percent instead of 5?”
The added context doesn’t really improve the clip – it makes it worse. I say “worse” because Musk’s attorneys have to argue that he was swindled by Twitter into getting out of the contract he signed. So he should have believed the accounts Twitter made of his user base and then been surprised to find out, whoopsie, no. But this video contradicts that idea — it suggests everyone knows Twitter is full of bots. There was no way Twitter could have lied to him.
Twitter almost certainly has an insanely huge team of sad junior lawyers scouring YouTube for any comments Musk made
Forget the argument over whether non-authentic accounts matter in the Twitter deal. We don’t need this conversation! Here’s Musk saying he definitely knew Twitter was full of bots and scams like any sane person would. Which is obviously why the clip went viral. Will Twitter’s Lawyers Use It? Who knows! But it’s leverage, baby.
Musk speaks a lot publicly, which means Twitter almost certainly has a huge team of sad junior attorneys scouring YouTube for comments Musk made that will screw up his case.
However, that may not mean a dramatic moment in the courtroom. The public drama of subpoenas and such masks possible private drama. You see, Twitter needs to act like it’s forcing Musk to buy the company — but when the real goal is just to get a huge payout beyond the $1 billion that Musk signed Contract requires, then this kind of leverage means Twitter can charge for even more money to make itself whole. Or, I think, a lower purchase price, but that seems like a loss for Twitter. Personally, I’d start the negotiations with a nice, cool $15 billion payout for my troubles while Twitter remains independent.
How did I get this number? Musk has sold another $6.9 billion — nice — in Tesla stock, in addition to the $8.4 billion he sold in April, though on April 28 he said “no more TSLA- Sales planned,” tweeted. So that’s $15.3 billion Musk made from Tesla stock he claims he only sold for the Twitter deal.
The longer this goes on, the more opportunities Musk has to shoot himself in the foot
Musk’s putative rationale for the new sales is to “avoid a fire sale of Tesla stock” if Twitter forces the deal to close and “some equity partners don’t get through.” OK? That does not help? Part of Twitter’s lawsuit alleges Musk screwed up the funding effort he was obligated to make. Selling more Tesla stock in case, um, some partners don’t pull through makes Twitter’s allegations seem more serious to me, even if Musk doesn’t have enough cash to complete the deal himself.
However, at the moment we have more litigation. Musk wants the names of Twitter employees involved in the bot counts. I imagine Twitter is shielding these people for a reason: After Musk publicly criticized Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s general counsel, Gadde was also harassed online. My former drinking buddy Casey Newton believes this request for names is a sign that Musk is lashing out.
I agree that Musk lashes out, but I don’t think that’s why he wants names. This is an attempt to delay the case and penalize Twitter in the process. Musk’s incentive here is to make the litigation as long and painful and thorough as possible so that Twitter is easier to settle. The thing is, given the extensive public record of Musk’s comments and what is likely to be an extensive private record, Twitter is unlikely to bat an eyelid.
But the longer this goes on, the more opportunities Musk has to shoot himself in the foot. For example: the Tesla stock sale. At one point, Musk said that “the difference between Tesla, which is worth a lot of money, and is basically worth zero” is whether the company successfully solves the self-driving problem. But its sales, ostensibly for Twitter – but who knows what he’ll do with that money if the deal doesn’t go through – are a problem for Tesla. Look, Tesla hasn’t managed to drive itself yet, so it might be worth zero. That makes Musk look like he’s stepping out while access is good.