5% or 20%? Five minutes to understand the controversy over fake accounts between Elon Musk and Twitter

Is Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter really worth $44 billion? The boss of Tesla and SpaceX opened hostilities by pointing to the mass presence of fake accounts on the platform. Since then, a debate has opened up between Twitter and the billionaire, a candidate for its takeover. When the platform estimates the share of fake accounts at 5%, Elon Musk thinks it’s four times more. We take stock.

How many fake accounts are there?

Questions around “fake accounts” are not new. But their definition can vary according to each one. Can an automated Twitter account – as can be those of certain customer services – be considered a fake account? User accounts posting nothing – 49% of Americans post less than five tweets per month, according to a study by the Pew Research Center – are they also?

But as Twitter is listed, the company must be transparent about its users. In its latest quarterly report, published on March 31, 2022, it said it estimated the number of “fake accounts and spam accounts (Editor’s note: harmful Twitter accounts that can tweet messages automatically)” during the first quarter to “less than 5%” of users having connected at least once over the period. Twitter “uses public and private data” to determine whether an account is “human” or not, such as IP address, telephone number or even geolocation, the boss of Twitter reported on the platform on Monday (message to which Elon Musk responded with a “poop” emoji.

For Twitter, therefore, a “fake account” is an account that is not managed by a human and is harmful. “An account without a photo or location may be someone who has personal feelings about online privacy or whose use of Twitter may put them at risk, such as an activist or dissident,” write in a recent article the Head of Platform Integrity and the Director of Strategy and Global Public Policy Development. “Someone who tweets 100 times a day with #SuperBowl might just be an extremely committed person who loves football,” they also write, explaining the difficulty of spotting these fake accounts.

Should we believe the figures of Twitter?

5% fake accounts on the platform? Elon Musk doesn’t believe it. Monday, during a conference in Miami, the billionaire estimated at least 20% the share of fake accounts on the platform, without saying what it was based on. The boss of Tesla and SpaceX may be speaking from experience: just look at the replies to each of his tweets to see that there are many fake accounts, many trying to scam users with cryptocurrencies (which the billionaire is fond of ).

An American study conducted by SparkToro and Followerwonk, two firms specializing in social network analysis, has also shown that 70% of Elon Musk subscribers were fake accounts (23% when we look at active accounts only, that’s i.e. those who tweeted in the last 90 days and are public).

The study conducted by SparkToro and Followerwonk was not limited to Elon Musk subscribers. However, the method is not the same as that carried out by Twitter – which has more data on its own users. It is based on an artificial intelligence that only looks at public data: the profile photo, the language of the tweets, the age of the account, the number of subscribers, subscriptions and tweets as well as its location. From there, according to their method, can be considered as fake accounts accounts combining several conditions: does not have a profile photo, sends identical tweets from another account and in a coordinated way, has few subscribers… According to their study, and based on the analysis of 44,000 active accounts, SparkToro and Followerwonk estimate the share of fake accounts at 19.42%.

In an interview with CBS News, the founder and CEO of BotSentinel, a company specializing in the analysis of Twitter accounts, estimates between 10 and 15% the number of “inauthentic” accounts. “I think Twitter does not realistically rank accounts fake and spam “, noted its leader Christopher Bouzy to the newspaper. A finding that had already been observed in 2017 by several researchers in a study. According to their analysis of 14 million accounts, between 9 and 15% of them were bots.

What is Elon Musk playing?

After rising to the capital of Twitter, Elon Musk announced his ambition to buy the company. A 44 billion dollar deal that the board of directors ended up accepting. But have the billionaire’s plans changed? “Twitter says over 95% of its daily users are real. Does anyone have this experience? he asks them on Tuesday, offering two answers in a survey: a laughing smiley, or a “Who, me? with a robot emoji. “Robots are angry to be counted”, he had posted on the platform, shortly after announcing the suspension of his purchase the time to clarify this question.

It’s hard to know what Elon Musk is looking for. “It’s like when you buy a house: if you say that house has less than 5% termites, that’s an acceptable number. But if it turns out that the correct percentage is 90% termites, then this is no longer acceptable,” the billionaire explained, thus comparing the fake accounts to termites. Is he trying to lower the price? “Musk thus has a margin of negotiation, because if he has to clean Twitter up to 20% and not 5%, it is not the same price”, explains to the Parisian Yannick Chatelain, teacher-researcher at Grenoble Ecole de Management , specialist in digital and social networks. “The higher the rate of fake accounts, the more the credibility of Twitter is called into question,” he continues.

If Twitter’s price was notably based on its users, and if Elon Musk was willing to shell out $44 billion for the company and its 5% fake accounts, what would the price be with 20% fake accounts? According to our calculations, the note would amount to just over 37 billion dollars. But that’s not counting the upheavals in the course of Twitter on the stock market, penalized by the interventions of the billionaire. His plan was to buy back each remaining share at $54.20. The course had exploded at the announcement of the entry into the capital of the billionaire and then that of his plan to buy Twitter. Before falling in recent days around 38 dollars.

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