By Jeffrey A. Tucker
Over the last several weeks, the perception has grown that Elon Musk will not be the emancipator of Twitter, freeing it finally from its mysterious algorithms that throttle, block, and ban perfectly wonderful accounts solely based on the political vendetta of employees and management.
It’s said that he has cold feet, as if Elon’s demand for better data is purely a cover for emotional doubt. That’s simply not true. What he has intuited—that Twitter underreports the sheer fake accounts and bot armies that use its platform—could in fact become another scandal for our age.
Twitter says it’s only 5 percent. Elon has crowd-sourced the question and suspects it is closer to 20 percent.
The truth is out there, but Twitter is not forthcoming. Why might this be? Here is where we get to the core of the issue: the reach data provided by these companies—this pertains not only to Twitter but to hundreds of thousands of sites—form the basis of its pricing structure for advertisers and therefore drive the fundamentals of the business model.
The business model is that these companies sell your content—which you provide because you want your views known—to advertisers so that they can sell to you. Advertisers are charged for access to your brain based on an overall estimate of how many users are on the platform and how broad is the reach. Accuracy is of huge importance here.
But accuracy has not exactly defined the way these companies have long operated. The data are subject to manipulation in the extreme. For example, Twitter has proven to be absolutely awful at policing the number of fake accounts that pretend to be some famous person with large followers. One might suspect that getting rid of such accounts should be part of Twitter’s main focus.
I’ve dealt with it for years and spent far too much time getting rid of them. Who has such time? It’s ridiculous. But have a look at this problem which has been going on for many weeks now. Brownstone’s Martin Kulldorff has a famous Twitter account but I can easily search his name which turns up many fake accounts. Notice the slightly different spellings. This isn’t rocket science! Does Twitter do anything about it? Not in many weeks.
If this is any indication of the underlying realities, Twitter has a very big problem. Instead of focusing its energies on censoring good accounts, it might have applied its energies to solving a problem that affects all users.
And yet there is more at stake. Consider that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has initiated an investigation into Twitter. If the company has falsely reported its real user base, that stands in violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Paxton has given the company until June 27, 2022, to produce evidence for how it calculates the numbers it has routinely touted to advertisers. We’ll see. It will probably end up in court.
Twitter’s reluctance to comply with Elon’s demand, and seeming lack of transparency here, is hardly unusual in this industry. It affects the whole of the digital world. The data is easily manipulated. Users are not necessarily users. People have learned to game the system to manufacture influence. Companies count as a user people who have created accounts and forgotten about them, not having logged in for years.
I’ve been working hard recently to clean up my accounts out there, and discovered for myself just how tricky this can be. I once thought Snapchat would be a thing, so I got an account (don’t judge me). Then it bored me. I found the app the other day and decided to delete my account. After 30 minutes of trying, having completely forgotten my logins and so on, and then searching forever for the way out, I finally gave up. Yes, I could have solved the issue but doing so is too arduous. Same goes probably for another dozen or two such accounts.
Meanwhile, I’m sure these companies list me as a user. In other words, it’s a racket.
Years ago, I had begun to watch the behavior of a certain media team that was using YouTube and I noticed that there was something not quite right about the wild claims they were making. One day I did a deep drill down into this alleged traffic. It turned out that 95 percent were views of only a few seconds, and most of those came from strange and far-flung places in the world. It turned out that the production company was paying pennies on views that were not actual views. But to know that, you have to look very carefully and very deeply. It’s there but buried.
The problem is systematic and gigantic. Facebook faced a similar problem. The overcharges in this realm are legion. The ability to generate fake users, views, and traffic is rather easy to achieve. It proves too tempting for these outlets, especially because investors and advertisers are so easily bamboozled. I’ve long been on the admin side and see the realities, and they are nothing like what these companies report.
If Elon can manage to get to the bottom of this, he will have had an amazing impact on the whole social media industry. Even if he never becomes the owner of Twitter, he will force new levels of transparency and truth. There could be huge scandals lurking out there, not only at Twitter and YouTube, but also at Facebook, TikTok, and many more. These revelations could prompt yet another deep correction in company valuations.
There is a larger point here. Think about the use of the energies of these companies. They have their staff working long hours with deep focus to find reasons to ban anyone with right-of-center views. They have deleted thousands and even millions of legitimate accounts of people who have said truthful things, all at the behest of their government masters. Bans continue unabated, daily, hourly.
And while they have been doing this, they have allowed bot armies to run uncontrolled in ways that radically diminish user experience. In other words, they are not doing their actual jobs and instead are using the platform to push an agenda.
This is obviously unsustainable. But these are times of truth. It’s all going to come out. These are the days of the great reckoning.
What is happening to Twitter now is happening to the entire economic environment. A new poll reveals a dramatic loss in economic optimism. A Wall Street Journal poll says that 83 percent of those surveyed rate the economy as not good or poor. The dissatisfaction is intensifying.
Frothy social media companies, platforms that won big from lockdowns that they pushed and championed on behalf of governments around the world, could see a serious cleaning of their clocks in this environment. With or without Elon’s proposed takeover of Twitter, the privileged censors who have relied on inflated numbers for years are not going to fare well.