WOne good turn in the theatre deserves another. This is exactly what Elon Musk has done.
The world’s richest person has spent the past several weeks complaining that Twitter is undercounting the amount of automated spam bots on its site and that it won’t give him access to the data he needs to make an independent assessment, which he needs before he’ll finish closing on his acquisition of the company. According to Twitter, bots account for less than 5%. This number is consistent with many years worth of SEC filings. Musk was able to access this figure right from the beginning. His sudden obsession with it seems like an act. It is a way for him to create a pretext to renegotiate his $44billion offer for Twitter in the midst of a large drop in stock market prices.
On Monday, Musk’s lawyer sent Twitter a tersely worded letter saying it had better turn over the data. Or else. Or else? Or else Musk and his attorneys will consider their refusal a breach of the merger agreement and call off the deal, a dubious argument that probably wouldn’t hold up in court—but one they could use to make things unpleasant for Twitter.
On Wednesday, we learned about Twitter’s own Musk-type move. This is the business It is reportedly preparing to give him access to its so-called “firehose” API, a stream of every tweet sent. (Every. Tweet.) This is roughly 500 million microblog posts per day. A Twitter spokesperson wouldn’t comment about how exactly it’ll share this trove with Musk, saying only: “Twitter has and will continue to cooperatively share information with Mr. Musk to consummate the transaction in accordance with the terms of the merger agreement. This agreement we believe is best for all shareholders. We intend to close the transaction and enforce the merger agreement at the agreed price and terms.”
Let’s be very clear: it would have been a mistake for Twitter, to allow Musk so much access. It was meant to convey to him that this is a ridiculous move. Do you need data? Here’s all the data we have. We’re not hiding a thing. Enjoy! “He doesn’t need access to everything. You don’t want access to everything,” says Goran Muric, a computer scientist at USC’s Institute for Information Sciences who has worked with similar Twitter APIs. In truth, Musk probably only needs the “decahose” API Twitter makes available to some researchers, which is 10% of all tweets. The difference between the results gleaned from the decahose and the firehose equates to the difference between “a poll and a census,” says Muric. Smaller, more easily-useable sample sizes are better for polls. “And you can have multiple polls all the time and pretty much accurate results” dovetailing with what a more expansive census would produce, Muric says.
Sure, it’s amusing to see Twitter pull a Musk on Musk—to try, ostensibly, to call his bluff. However, the outcome of the lawsuit between billionaire Musk and his company may not be a significant one. It will not be easy for Musk to analyze Twitter bot activity. This task will require a group of researchers to create software that can review tweets. Most to the point, while Musk can use his access to the firehose API to come up with an estimate of bot activity on Twitter, it seems almost inevitable that his figure won’t match Twitter’s.
To start, his definition of what constitutes a bot account could quite easily differ from Twitter’s. Musk may define bots however he likes. There’s no universally accepted definition, even among the field’s top researchers. “If you put two people in the room and ask about the definition of anything, they would have a different opinion—and especially about the definition of what is a bot on Twitter,” says Muric. “So maybe if somebody tweets more than 1,000 tweets in a day, he’s a bot right? But maybe somebody else will say, It should be if they tweet more than 50 times.” The best tool for identifying bots, Botometer, which comes from an Indiana University team, offers only a rough gauge of bot activity, giving a probability score for whether an account is a bot, never a certainty. Musk has plenty of flexibility to use the API firehose to draw whatever conclusions he needs to achieve his goals. This, again, is likely to convince Twitter to pay a lower price.
Further, it’s unclear whether even a good-faith effort on Musk’s part could fully replicate Twitter’s process, doubling check its internal estimate. To be precise, Twitter has said bots account for less than 5% of its “monetizable daily active users,” a figure of Twitter’s own creation. A Twitter app reports monthly active users if they log in at least once every 30 days. So it’s uncertain whether even a well-intentioned Musk could use the firehose API to calculate the same number of monetizable daily active users.
A second question: What happens if Musk discovers a problem in Twitter’s firehose API? Facebook bought CrowdTangle from Brandon Silverman. He pointed out via Twitter that CrowdTangle could end up worsening the existing situation.
Really, it wouldn’t matter whether any additional problem was real or fake. Theater is essentially about making-believe.