Elon Musk’s bid to take control of Twitter has taken another strange turn as the social media platform appears to have responded to the entrepreneur’s request for access to internal data held by the company.
Musk has lobbied for weeks on Twitter to provide data that would allow the South African businessman to test whether a large percentage of the platform’s users are fake bot accounts, something he believes could lower the price he might be willing to pay the company.
Musk asserts that bot accounts make up more than 5% of the Twitter user base, something that even Musk’s critics believe is true, and he wants the company to refute this.
The company reported fewer non-original accounts in its financial results . But it’s willing to give Musk access to every tweet posted daily, along with accurate user information, in order to allow him to look for inauthentic behavior.
The company’s apparent willingness to give Musk access to the data comes days after Musk’s lawyer sent the company a letter saying it was actively resisting and thwarting Musk’s rights to information, and threatening to walk away from the deal.
Giving Musk access to the data is important, and raises two main questions:
- Did Musk get what he wanted from the data he obtained?
- What it means to have access to users’ privacy and security.
By giving him access to the data, the company can ask him to substantiate his claims about bot accounts, said Axel Bruns, a professor at Queensland University of Technology.
Bruns believes that Musk and those who hire him to track down the bots may have a hard time. But even for someone with the skills required to handle this level of data, this is unlikely to be the correct way to answer the question.
Twitter gave Elon Musk access to data
It’s not certain whether access to the data of the 500 million tweets posted across the social media platform each day might help Musk answer the key question he claims is halting his purchase of the company.
This data is not the data you need to know how many bot accounts there are, says Paddy Liersen, a researcher in information law at the University of Amsterdam.
The ability to define what makes a bot a bot has been a topic of debate in the academic field, and one that experts have devoted much of their working lives to.
Which is why they suspect that having access to all of the tweets posted on Twitter might provide an answer to the question about the bot definitively enough to convince Musk to go ahead with the purchase.
“People tend to overestimate how easy it is to detect bots,” says Larsen. Data alone will not enable you to do this, unless you combine it with all other types of research methods. “I don’t think Elon Musk has time for such a thing,” he added.
Giving Musk access to the data is a relatively harmless move because it doesn’t expose users’ private data, said Christopher Posey, founder of Bot Sentinel, a service that tracks inauthentic behavior across Twitter. It’s just a bunch of tweets.
From those tweets, Mask can analyze the data to see if accounts randomly sent the same message, or whether a few accounts are responsible for the majority of the tweets across the platform — both of which could be potential warning signs of bot behavior.
That’s a huge number of tweets. And pretty much everyone can’t manage it outside of Twitter. Posey noted that the US Library of Congress had access to the data in an attempt to archive every tweet posted and abandoned that endeavor.
Musk’s interest in data is peculiar, given that he declined an offer to look into Twitter’s data room when his initial takeover offer was launched in April.
The data is available for a number of companies
About two dozen companies have access to the data that Twitter gave Musk access to. But their handling of the data doesn’t seem to have caused any known issues so far.
Twitter has previously given broader access to data. But I realized that it was losing major points by giving third-party data vendors access.
Spy agencies previously obtained access to user data through Dataminr, a company that purchased access to the data.
Google and researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology previously had access to the same data that Musk is now giving access to.
Sharing sensitive information is an essential part of the acquisition process. When the company goes through the acquisition process, the buyer has to consider the company’s inner workings.
Musk has shown himself while trying to acquire Twitter that he is willing to ignore legal agreements. Many also see his apparent concern about the number of bot accounts as an excuse to back out of the deal. This is despite the terms of the agreement he reached to prevent this from happening without huge punitive fines.
There are concerns that Musk or his companies may use the information to which he has been granted access in the future.
The data can generate new insights into who uses Twitter and why, and how usage patterns are changing in the long term. It can also generate information about problematic behaviors that users engage in. Besides creating detailed profiles of users’ interests and networks.
The important question is how long Musk can access the data. This becomes a particular user privacy and ethics concern if Musk has access for months or more.
Regardless of whether Musk had access to the data or not. But it is unlikely to help him overcome the main obstacle he faces in buying Twitter.