By Peter Rex
The media thinks Twitter finally has Elon Musk over a barrel. After agreeing to buy the social media giant, he’s now holding up the deal while trying to discover what percentage of Twitter users are really robots. The media reports that Twitter might force Musk to go ahead with the deal, and if he doesn’t, he could pay over a billion dollars in penalties.
But the media has it backwards. It’s Elon Musk who’s doing the right thing and has all the power. He has Twitter between a bot and a hard place – not the other way around.
I say this as a tech CEO who’s negotiated hundreds of business deals over the past decade. The only good deals are based on full honesty and transparency. Yet the more we learn about Twitter, the more it looks like the company could be holding back the truth. Musk, and the rest of America, are rightly wondering: What percentage of Twitter is totally fake?
If you listen to the company, the answer is essentially: there is nothing to see here. In legally binding federal filings, Twitter has said that only 5% of its users are bots. Yet at times, it also says the number “could be higher.” That’s the sort of statement that demands to be unpacked, yet to date, Twitter has failed to do so. What’s worse, this week it refused to make public how it reached that 5% claim.
This is totally unacceptable, especially for someone who wants to buy the company at the enormous cost of $44 billion. Twitter might be deliberately lying, completely incompetent, or maybe both. No wonder Musk is seeking answers.
He’s asking the right question. Basically anyone who’s ever used Twitter already knows that huge numbers of users are bots, and based on my own experience on the platform, I’d say the real number is well over 5%. Everyone I’ve ever talked to says the same thing. Sure enough, independent research has found that about 20% of active Twitter users are either fake accounts or spam.
The real total may be even higher. Musk himself has drawn attention to an audit finding that half of President Biden’s 22 million followers are fake. A similar process found that about 70% of Musk’s followers may not be “authentic, active” Twitter users. How can that be, if Twitter deletes half a million fake accounts every day as it claims it does?
The media thinks Musk’s fake followers are hypocritical, but that’s not his fault. It only proves his point that Twitter needs to come clean. If it can’t figure out who’s following the leader of the free world, to say nothing of its future owner, there’s a low chance Twitter knows what’s happening on the rest of the platform.
Elon Musk has every right to demand the truth. If it turns out that Twitter has more fake users than it admits, he also has every right to demand a lower price before buying the company.
Here’s my suggestion: For every 1% of Twitter users beyond 5% that are fake, Musk should pay 1% less. So if he’s right that 20% of accounts are bots, then he should pay 15% less. (Personally, I’d demand an even steeper discount, given Twitter’s track record of censorship. Violating free speech doesn’t deserve full price.)
One thing’s for sure: Twitter needs Elon Musk more than Elon Musk needs Twitter. The total lack of clarity around bots is just the latest proof that the social media giant is poorly run. It desperately needs a real visionary and true entrepreneur at the helm. Only then will it reach its true potential. And Elon Musk has the drive and desire to make Twitter what it should have been all along: A place for people and free speech, not bots and Big Tech censorship.
Peter Rex is founder and CEO of Rex, which builds and invests in tech companies.