A Twitter Bot Wrote This

Hello and welcome back to Equity, a podcast about the business of startups, where we unpack the numbers and nuance behind the headlines.

The whole team was back together this week, which was pretty darn good as there was a lot to get through. Alex Wilhelm, Natasha Mascarenhas and Mary Ann Azevedo were on the mic, with Grace handling production.

What did we get into? A better question might be what did we not get into:

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Twitter will hide false tweets from high-profile accounts during times of crisis

In its ongoing effort to combat misinformation about breaking news, Twitter is rolling out a crisis misinformation policy to ensure that it doesn’t amplify falsehoods during times of widespread strife.

To determine whether a tweet is misleading, Twitter will require verification from credible, public sources, including conflict monitoring groups, humanitarian organizations, open source investigators, journalists and more. If the platform finds that the tweet is misleading, it’ll slap a warning notice on the tweet, turn off likes, retweets and shares, and link to more details about the policy. These tweets will also stop surfacing on the home page, search or explore.

Notably, Twitter will “preserve this content for accountability purposes,” so it will remain online. Users will just have to click through the warning to view the tweet. In the past, some warnings about election or COVID-19 misinformation have simply been notices that appear in line beneath the tweet, rather than covering it up entirely.

Twitter crisis misinfo policy notice

Image Credits: Twitter

Twitter says it will prioritize adding warning notices to viral tweets or posts from high-profile accounts, which may include verified users, state-affiliated media and government accounts. This strategy makes a lot of sense, since a tweet from a prominent figure is more likely to go viral than a tweet from an ordinary person with 50 followers — but it’s a wonder that more platforms haven’t taken this approach already.

Some examples of tweets that might be flagged under this policy include false on-the-ground event reporting, misleading allegations of war crimes, atrocities, or use of weapons and misinformation about international community response, sanctions, defensive operations and more. Personal anecdotes don’t fall under the policy, nor do people’s strong opinions, commentary or satire. Tweets that call attention to a false claim in order to refute it are allowed, too.

Twitter began working on a crisis misinformation framework last year alongside human rights organizations, it says. This policy may come into effect under circumstances like public health emergencies or natural disasters, but to start, the platform will use these tactics to mitigate misinformation about international armed conflict — particularly, the ongoing Russian attack on Ukraine.

Most social networks have struggled with content moderation amid the war in Ukraine, and Twitter is no exception. In one circumstance, Twitter made the decision to remove the Russian Embassy’s false claim that a pregnant bombing victim in Ukraine was a crisis actor. Twitter also suspended an account that spread a false conspiracy theory that the U.S. holds biological weapons in Ukraine.

It seems like there’s a fine line between what kind of content would be taken down entirely or what posts would result in a deletion or ban. This policy might have applied to the Russian Embassy’s misleading tweet, for example, but at what point is an account so violative that it earns a ban?

“Content moderation is more than just leaving up or taking down content,” Twitter’s head of safety and integrity Yoel Roth wrote in a blog post. “We’ve found that not amplifying or recommending certain content, adding context through labels, and in severe cases, disabling engagement with the Tweets, are effective ways to mitigate harm, while still preserving speech and records of critical global events.”

Roth added in a thread that Twitter found that not amplifying this content can reduce its spread by 30% to 50%.

But depending on whether Elon Musk’s $44 billion bid to buy Twitter actually goes through, these policies may not be around for long. Musk believes that content moderation should mirror the rules of the state, AKA, Twitter’s community guidelines basically just become the First Amendment with no added nuance. While that may be appealing to the kinds of people who are never on the receiving end of hateful messages, that approach could undo loads of progress on Twitter, including efforts like this that halt the spread of harmful misinformation.

Even so, these policies are never 100% effective, and much content that violates guidelines escapes detection anyway. This week, we encountered multiple banned videos of the Buffalo shooter’s terrorist attack on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, which were left online for days without removal. One video of the gruesome shooting, which we sent to Twitter directly, still remains online.

So while these policies might be well intentioned, they can only function as effectively as they’re enforced.

What’s more stable than Bitcoin or UST? AriZona Iced Tea

ICYMI, stablecoins are in deep shit right now, and the chaos that unfolded this week has thrown the entire crypto ecosystem into turmoil with over $400 billion in losses from just one coin alone. In these times of uncertainty, all we can rely on is that we can purchase a can of AriZona Iced Tea for 99 cents, the same price that the refreshing beverage sold for in 1996. Mossy, a collective of three techy artists, thinks that an (unofficially) AriZona-backed stablecoin can save the crypto economy.

A stablecoin, as the name implies, is supposed to be stable because it tracks the value of another asset — similar to how gold bars once backed the U.S. dollar during gold-standard times.

In the case of TerraUSD (UST), formerly one of the largest stablecoins that fell from grace this week, each UST coin was supposed to stay consistently equivalent in value to one U.S. dollar. But there were no physical reserves — instead, the group behind UST used algorithms and reserves of other cryptocurrencies to manage its price. That system went haywire, leading some holders of UST to withdraw their money, and before investors knew what had hit them, the panic and fear compounded and UST was trading as low as nine cents on the dollar. UST’s sudden collapse has led to over $400 billion in losses for investors over the past week or so, leaving people to question the, well, stability of stablecoins as a whole.

Mossy’s solution for the calamitous sector, a stablecoin called USDTea, is backed by what they claim is America’s most stable asset: cans of AriZona Iced Tea. For over 30 years, AriZona founder Don Vultaggio has been working tirelessly against inflation to keep the cost of each can at exactly 99 cents, playing hardball with suppliers to keep input costs low and sacrificing his own profit for the sake of consistency.

As for Mossy, you may have seen their work before. The group launched the “Non-fungible Olive Gardens” project that got them in some hot water over copyright laws as well as the “Blockedchain” NFTs that only Twitter users who have been blocked by famed (and pugnacious) venture capitalist Marc Andreessen can mint.

Mossy quietly announced the USDTea stablecoin project on Twitter one and a half hours before selling out all 1,000 tokens they initially supplied. We sat down with Brian Moore, one of the three members of the artists’ collective — another member is Mike Lacher, who recently went viral for his AI that harshly judges your music taste, while the third member chooses to remain anonymous. Moore regaled us with his (mostly) straight-faced, highly serious explanation of Mossy’s ambitions to bring stability to an unstable world — one can of iced tea at a time.

TC: So, who are you? What is this collective that tries to save crypto through AriZona Iced Tea?

BM: We’re a little group called Mossy, and the last three things we’ve made have all been web3 projects. We created non-fungible Olive Gardens, and then we did Blockedchain, which was an NFT series that you can only mint if you’re blocked by specific people on Twitter, like Marc Andreesen. And now the latest is USDTea, which is a stablecoin that’s linked to the most stable asset we know on planet Earth, which is AriZona Iced Tea.

Can you literally connect your wallet to this and get a token? 

Well, first of all, I just got word that we are fully out of the 1,000 that we started with [after about an hour and a half post-launch]. That’s the weirdness of this world. It was the same thing with non-fungible Olive Gardens; we quietly released it, and then it was gone within I think 10 hours.

AriZona Iced Tea might be $0.99, but what about gas fees?

The way the flow works is the fees aren’t super high. It’s an ERC 20 token. I bought some and I think it was, you know, negligible, like $4 or something in gas fees. And then, just like any other stablecoins that are pegged to currency, you can always switch back. In this case, you can burn your USDTea and we will ship you cans of AriZona Iced Tea, because it wouldn’t be backed by it if we didn’t actually do that. So we have our strategic reserves of AriZona Iced Tea to use if people want to convert it back at any given time.

Do you actually have 1,000 cans of tea? 

It’s 1,000 cans where we’re starting. That might expand in the future. And if we do that, I think we’d probably be open to external auditing depending on the situation, but currently, we’ve got 1,000 cans basically, and we will distribute them as necessary. Right now we do have reserves split around different locations around the U.S.

Do you make these satirical web3 projects as your full-time job?

The more we do this, the more it becomes something that is more full time, but I’d say we’re mostly artists.

How many people are you?

We’re three people. So we’re pretty … I guess the word would be nimble. It allows us to make things very quickly. In the case of the destabilization of currency-pegged cryptocurrencies, you know, when did that whole snafu go down? We’re trying to bolster the crypto economy as quickly as possible, and we can only do that with a small team.

Did you conceive of this idea last week when Terra was collapsing?

Exactly. There’s something to be said about the stability of stablecoins, right? That’s half the word, stable. And then you think, what’s the most stable thing you can imagine? AriZona Iced Tea, you really can’t beat it.

How do you make money off of this, or is making money not the goal? 

It’s not necessarily the goal, really, but I think we want to support ourselves at some point. We’re in the interest of making interesting work on the internet, and that is the ultimate goal. If it makes us money, great, and if it doesn’t, then that’s fine too. Ultimately, we’re just making interesting things — making people think, making people laugh, or, you know, stabilize their assets in canned iced teas.

How would you make money?

These are fungible assets, so it’s meant to be more of a currency replacement than, say, an individual art piece. One USDTea is equal to one USDTea. There’s no one of them that’s better than the other or rarer than the other. They’re all equal to one can of AriZona’s Iced Tea.

But to redeem your can of tea, you have to pay a $20 flat processing fee. What is that fee?

That’s just literally the logistics of shipping. That’s not a money-making scheme to make profit off of the transaction; it’s to get you your personalized tea assets that you can store in your own location.

On your website, you have the question “what happens when ETH crashes?”, and you say that you update the ETH/USDTea to match ETH/USD from time to time. What does that entail?

It just means that as Ethereum might change in price, we want to match that so the rate ends up being around 99 cents.

How often will you do that? I imagine you don’t have an algorithm.

No, there’s no algorithm yet. That might come in the future — it all depends on how wide we expand this. We’re taking it one step at a time. This has been about 90 minutes worth of launch time, so once we stabilize our own situation, we’ll figure out what we need to do.

Obviously, Terra was the inspiration for this project. Do you have any opinions or takes about what happened, and how Terra’s handling that? 

I think our company speaks through the work itself. We’re here to try to stabilize an unstable world, so I think that backing our assets in a new, innovative and most importantly stable asset … I think that sort of says all that we need to say about that situation.

An anteater is pictured

An anteater. Image Credits: MICHAL CIZEK/AFP via Getty Images

Would you say you’re bullish or bearish on crypto? 

Are we bullish? Are we bearish? I don’t know. I think we’re exploring it. We love it as a medium through which to make interesting art pieces. I don’t think we necessarily have an answer or have an animal to assign to it. You can just say anteater or something like that.

Twitter rolls out the ability for creators to host Super Follows-only Spaces

Twitter has announced that it’s rolling out Super Follows-only Spaces. Creators who offer Super Follows subscriptions can now host Spaces exclusively for their subscribers. The social media giant says this new option will give creators a way to “offer an extra layer of conversation to their biggest supporters.”

Subscribers globally on iOS and Android will be able to join and request to speak in Super Follows-only Spaces, whereas subscribers on Twitter’s web platform can join and listen, but won’t have the option to request to speak. Creators can start a Super Follows-only Space by selecting the “Only Super Followers can join” button when starting a new Space. Users who aren’t Super Following a creator will still see the Space, but won’t be able to access it unless they subscribe.  

It’s worth noting that the new Super Follow-only option for Spaces isn’t the only way for creators to hold exclusive Spaces. For example, Twitter launched its Ticketed Spaces feature last year to allow creators to set a price for users to listen in on a Space. Creators can set their ticket price anywhere between $1 and $999 and can also limit how many tickets are sold.

Super Follows, which was first revealed in February 2021, allows users to subscribe to accounts they like for a monthly subscription fee in exchange for exclusive content. Super Follows is currently in testing with select creators in the United States on iOS. Eligible accounts can set the price for Super Follow subscriptions, with the option of charging $2.99, $4.99 or $9.99 per month.

The launch of Super Follows-only Spaces adds another layer of exclusivity to Super Follows subscriptions. Twitter says it plans to launch more Super Follows features to allow creators to grow their audiences and get closer to their most engaged followers.

Twitter says its research shows that hosting consistent Spaces leads to more follower growth and also gives creators more ways to engage with their followers. The company found that consistently hosting Spaces, around two times per week, leads to a 17% follower growth over a quarter. In addition, the company says creators who host consistent Spaces for a month see a 6-7% growth in followers, and creators who do so for two months see a 10% growth in followers.

Daily Crunch: Musk pauses Twitter buy until platform proves less than 5% of users are spambots

It’s Tuesday, May 17, 2022, and we are currently in the midst of an existential crisis; aren’t we all, when we are being very honest with ourselves, a little bit spambot at heart? 

Tomorrow, TC Sessions: Mobility kicks off. Last chance saloon to buy tickets for our in-person event Wednesday and Thursday, or the virtual event on Friday! — Haje and Christine

The TechCrunch Top 3

  • Spambots holding up Twitter deal: Elon Musk doubled down on his previous tweets this morning, basically saying that if Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal is unable to back up claims that the number of spam and/or fake accounts is around the 5% the company says, Musk’s deal to acquire Twitter will not move forward. It would be a shame, really, after we’ve devoted so much effort in following the story, for it to not go through.
  • The Twitter choice is up to you: Which then begs the question: “Does Elon Musk really even want to buy Twitter?” Alex does a deep dive into this very question, and when he resurfaces, he finds that perhaps Musk wants to get out of the deal for a couple of reasons, one being it was not the company he thought it was.
  • Where dem dollas at?: Enabling other companies to offer financial products continues to be a hot area for venture capital investors to put their dollars. The latest is Unit, which is now a unicorn after closing on a $100 million Series C round. What’s interesting about what Unit does is that anyone, even those in the freelance or creator economy, can do it, too.

Startups and VC

Icarus ignores Daedalus’s instructions not to fly too close to the sun, melting his wax wings. A similar situation is causing Bird to change course and drop vehicle sales in pursuit of profitability, according to its Q1 earnings call, Rebecca reports. 

In a curious twist, Greenlight — which typically focuses on bank accounts for kids — just launched a new credit card aimed at helping parents save for college for their kids. The card’s purpose is reflected in the way it’s being marketed, but ultimately, it functions very similarly to any other credit card that offers cash back to users, Anita concludes. 

All startups, all the time:

How to evolve your DTC startup’s data strategy and identify critical metrics

Piggy bank with folding rule and spirit level against a white background

Image Credits: deepblue4you (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Most e-commerce startups use the same major platforms and analytics tools to gather data for the dashboards that measure the health of their businesses.

As a result, most direct-to-consumer companies make the same mistakes when it comes to refining raw transactional data, according to Michael Perez, director of growth and data at M13.

The calculation errors hardwired into platform data can lead teams to miscalculate key metrics, “drastically overestimate their customer lifetime value and overspend on marketing campaigns,” says Perez.

He identifies two common data mistakes: creating metrics at the wrong level of granularity, and using downstream metrics that usually create data silos. 

“We’re generally big fans of plug-and-play business intelligence tools, but they won’t scale with your business.”

(TechCrunch+ is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.) 

Big Tech Inc.

Want to monitor your company’s carbon footprint? Microsoft has an offering for that. The tech giant is joining other tech giants, like Salesforce, Google (which announced some new security features itself) and IBM, in offering sustainability tracking products. In Microsoft’s case, it will gather a bunch of data companies can use to eventually reduce that footprint and meet sustainability goals.

Robinhood has its sights set on a new target: more features. One includes enabling users to manage their own crypto wallets instead of Robinhood doing it for them. There seems to be a “private key” involved with the custodial accounts, so make sure you don’t leave it anywhere.

Lots of Apple news today. We’ll give you the short-short version, including new rules that will let apps raise subscription prices automatically (that won’t be abused, right?). The company is also kicking off its new Apple Music concert series with a livestream performance by Harry Styles and reportedly testing out E Ink’s outer display as it designs a foldable device.

Some others for your afternoon jam session:

Three senior Twitter employees leave amid potential Musk takeover

 

As Elon Musk tweets poop emojis at Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal, it appears that some of the platform’s executives are ready to move on.

According to a Bloomberg report, three senior employees are voluntarily leaving the company: Ilya Brown, a VP of product management for health, conversation and growth; Katrina Lane, VP of Twitter Service; and Max Schmeiser, head of data science. Per LinkedIn, Lane and Schmeiser had worked at Twitter for about one and two years respectively, while Brown had been at the company for six years.

Twitter confirmed these departures.

“We continue to be focused on providing the very best experience to the people on Twitter. We can confirm that they will be leaving Twitter for new opportunities. We are thankful for all of their hard work and leadership,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch.

There’s been plenty of shakeups at Twitter’s senior level in recent weeks, and not just because of Musk’s indecision about his potential $44 billion purchase. Just last week, Agrawal ousted two key executives: revenue product lead Bruce Falck and head of product Kayvon Beykpour, who was on parental leave at the time. Beykpour said that Agrawal, who has been CEO for under six months, asked him to leave because he wants to “take the team in a different direction.”

Musk has stated that if he does acquire Twitter, he would install a new CEO, meaning that Agrawal’s days in the role are numbered.

“Some have been asking why a ‘lame-duck’ CEO would make these changes if we’re getting acquired anyway,” Agrawal wrote on Twitter. “While I expect the deal to close, we need to be prepared for all scenarios and always do what’s right for Twitter. I’m accountable for leading and operating Twitter, and our job is to build a stronger Twitter every day.”

At this point, Musk is dragging his feet on his acquisition of Twitter, claiming that the deal is “on hold” over the issue of spam bots.

 

Musk says Twitter deal is dead unless CEO can prove spam stats

In a new tweet fired at Twitter before market open, Elon Musk has reiterated that his $44BN deal to buy the social media platform is on hold over the issue of spambots.

But now he’s tacitly accusing the company of lying over the proportion of fake/spam accounts on the platform, claiming its CEO “publicly refused to show proof of <5%”.

Musk has also set what sounds like an outright ultimatum — writing: “This deal cannot move forward until he does.”

He further suggests the platform could have more than 20% fake/spam accounts, linking to a report on comments he made in Miami on Monday saying he believes a fifth of Twitter accounts are fake/spam bots.

The tweet looks designed to pile yet more pressure on Twitter’s management which has already suffered the indignity of having Musk tweet a poo emoji at CEO Parag Agrawal (see our earlier report) in very public discussion about the spambot issue, among other Musk-generated ‘noise’.

With this latest Twitter CEO-targeting tweet, the shitposting billionaire may be engaging in more trollfaced bullyboy tactics — by seeking to drum up more negative publicity (on Twitter) that’s intended to hammer Twitter’s stock price — in a bid to force the company to accept a lower offer, if only to get him to shut up.

Or, well, he’s looking for a way to exit the deal entirely.

At the time of writing Twitter’s share price was down a further 2.75% pre-market. The stock has slid in recent weeks as Twitter grapples with Musk-shaped bumps in the road, from a high of around $50 at the time his offer was accepted to a low of around $37 now.

Let’s hope the mafia isn’t taking notes from Musk’s playbook on ‘the power of a social media megaphone platform’.

It’s notable that the Tesla CEO waived his right to do due diligence when he agreed to buy Twitter last month — presumably to encourage Twitter to accept what he’d couched as his “best and final offer” after its board initially sought to evade the takeover. So whinging about the percentage of bots he’s buying now is either stupidity or calculated stupidity. 

Although his urging that Twitter open itself to “external validation” on the bot detection issue could at least endear him to the independent research community.

Musk also agreed to a non-disparagement clause as part of the deal to buy Twitter. But apparently he doesn’t understand what that word means. Or, else, he continues to act as if binding legal agreements simply don’t apply to him.

Twitter was contacted for comment on Musk’s latest accusations. At the time of writing it had not responded but Bloomberg has just tweeted that the company told it it remains “committed to completing the transaction on the agreed price and terms as promptly as practicable”.

Daily Crunch: ‘The bitcoin network is not a payments network,’ says FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried

To get a roundup of TechCrunch’s biggest and most important stories delivered to your inbox every day at 3 p.m. PT, subscribe here.

It’s Monday the 16th of May, and I’m back once again, like a renegade master. I’m fantastically over-caffeinated and at a standing desk today, so for the occasion, it’s a dancing desk. Because, I mean, you try to sit still while listening to this thumpin’ beat.

This week, I’m psyched to head out to TechCrunch Sessions: Mobility in San Mateo to get the full story on which cars will be driving themselves and which companies are driving into our hearts – or off the nearest cliff. Get your tickets now — we still have a few available.

In other news(casts), we particularly enjoyed Lucas and Anita’s Chain Reaction podcast, where they’re taking a look at how crypto VCs can’t rely on spending their way into loyalty.

In other news, I just re-read my TechCrunch contract, which states no superfluous obscenities are allowed, so rest assured that this newsletter only contains strictly necessary swearwords. Much love and sunbeams and such! – Haje

The TechCrunch Top 3

  • Ack — moar layoffs: Natasha and Amanda break down the current constriction in startups with a roundup of layoffs over the past week, including an analysis of what happened at Section4, Carvana, Latch, DataRobot, and the hiring freezes at some of the tech stalwarts, including Meta, Twitter and Uber. They did a roundup last week, too, in case you missed that one. Meantime, Alex analyzes overall data from layoff tracker Layoffs.FYI.
  • Trouble in Unicorn Town: Over on TC+, Alex considers how SaaS valuation multiples have taken a further dive, now clocking in at single digits. As he summarizes: “A startup that sold stock last year at a 50x ARR multiple would need to double and then double again before it would have a multiple that is similar to the current public-market standard.“
  • Crypto? More like crypt-no: Anita reports how 30-year-old crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried takes a swipe at Bitcoin, saying it has no future as a payments network.

Startups and VC

Every now and again, startups raise money for missions that make me worry about the current timeline we are on. Today’s installment of that theme comes from the desk of Mr. Butcher, MBE, covering WeAre8’s crowdfunding campaign for a social media app where users are paid to watch apps. Sure, it makes sense to get some cash for your time, but also … just, ugh.

I loved this interview Aria did with high-flying (geddit …) startup Astra. It became the fastest company in history to reach orbit in November, six years after its founding, and its CEO says it’s aiming for daily launches sooner rather than later.

Developers, developers, developers:

5 lessons from ‘Star Wars’ that can transform startup managers’ strategies and tactics

Image Credits: Natalia_80 / Getty Images

The “Star Wars” saga is based on a storytelling structure developed by Joseph Campbell, a writer and literary professor who conceived of “the hero’s journey.”

Consisting of 12 stages, his archetype calls for a protagonist who leaves ordinary life behind after hearing the call to adventure — you can imagine why it’s a popular metaphor among tech investors.

According to Touchdown Ventures President Scott Lenet, Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi offered five discrete lessons for founders and investors.

For example, “’I have a bad feeling about this’ is a recurring joke in the franchise — nearly every major character utters the line at one point or another,” writes Lenet.

“These are also words to live by for corporate and startup leaders, because they are an emblem of awareness and proactivity.”

(TechCrunch+ is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Big Tech Inc.

You may not be thinking “games” when you hear Hulu, but its newest partnership with Xbox is changing that – Lauren reported it just inked a new deal that gives U.S. Hulu subscribers three months of a PC Game Pass as its Friends with Benefits initiative. Amazing name aside, perhaps it’s time to brush off my gaming rig (who am I kidding; I ain’t got time to play games. Too busy tweeting about coffee and my slowly-circling-the-drain mental health).

After EU pressure, it looks like Apple might be inching itself closer to introducing Apple iPhone models with a USB-C port. As someone who has USB-C cables strewn around every surface, room, nook, and cranny of my house, that would work beautifully for me – but Apple has long resisted the pressure, so we’ll see what actually happens on that front. I’m sure Darrell will continue to keep us abreast of the shape of iPhone’s crevices.

  • Excuse me, Robot, are you my Uber? Uber Eats is piloting autonomous deliveries with Serve and Motional. I just hope the robots also eat their vitamins, find love, and find some time for walks in the forest.
  • I wrote this, I like this: Twitter is testing a new “Liked by Author” label that appears when the creator of a tweet likes your reply, Aisha reports.
  • Da, da, da, say goodbye to your data: A new report from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties argues that a real-time bidding system is “the biggest data breach ever recorded.”
  • All the things, all the places, all the time, on a street near you: Uber revealed a host of new platforms and features during its global product event. The new products span Uber’s ride-hail and delivery services and aim to increase ridership, open new lines of business, incentivize drivers to go electric and more, Rebecca reports.

Twitter CEO and Elon Musk clash over bot-battling metrics

Twitter is full of bots, this much we know. But how full, and what kinds of bots? With estimates ranging from Twitter’s own “under 5 percent” to independent researchers suggesting 20 percent or more, it’s clearly a tricky number to nail down, as the company’s CEO, Parag Agrawal, explained in a thread today. Prospective buyer Elon Musk responded with a poo emoji.

Agrawal pointed out that spam and bots are serious problems that all social media platforms contend with, and more importantly they are an evolving and “dynamic” one. “The adversaries, their goals, and tactics evolve constantly — often in response to our work! You can’t build a set of rules to detect spam today, and hope they will still work tomorrow.”

The problem of figuring out whether an account is automated, semi-human, benign, violating, etc is non-trivial yet millions of accounts are actioned in some way, and as on other platforms, usually before they even do anything.

One reason it’s difficult to gauge whether an account is “real” or not, for whatever definition of “real” you choose to apply, is that there’s a limited amount of information available publicly. As Agrawal notes: “The use of private data is particularly important to avoid misclassifying users who are actually real. FirstnameBunchOfNumbers with no profile pic and odd tweets might seem like a bot or spam to you, but behind the scenes we often see multiple indicators that it’s a real person.”

By “private data” he likely means things like direct message activity, logins and browsing behavior that are invisible to anyone viewing from the outside but clear to the internal systems. Many Twitter users engage with the platform silently, and who can blame them?

This is convenient for Twitter because no one can verify the numbers it puts out. Though there’s little reason to think the company is outright fabricating or doctoring the numbers here, it’s inarguable that they have motive and opportunity to do so in subtle ways that would only be visible to an auditor with access to the same data they do.

The question of user authenticity, of course, goes right to the heart of a social media platform’s reach and ability to monetize, and we’ve seen over and over that falsifying or misrepresenting these numbers can have serious effects on the willingness of advertisers and premium services subscribers to pay.

Or, as billionaire and hopeful Twitter owner Elon Musk put it: “💩

His follow-up question, “So how do advertisers know what they’re getting for their money? This is fundamental to the financial health of Twitter,” is a baffling one. As someone ostensibly interested in running a social media company, it’s difficult to believe that he would not have performed some basic due diligence on the types of metrics that the industry uses to keep track of these things. After all, as Agrawal points out, these numbers have been reported regularly for a long time.

It’s not that the question is a bad one, it’s just odd that he would ask it here and now, after making a very risky buyout offer of the business — a business which he seems to not understand the elementary operations of. Companies like Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and others that monetize engagement have been defining and redefining “how advertisers know what they’re getting for their money” for a decade.

And long before that, of course, there has always famously been a disconnect between advertising and results — the old, “half works and half doesn’t, but no one knows which half is which” conundrum.

The most pertinent question here does not seem to be “how do we know engagement is authentic?” but rather, why has Elon Musk only begun looking into this now? It’s a bit like buying a horse and then looking up “horse” in the dictionary. The seeming lack of familiarity not just with the complexities of Twitter but with the way the social media ad market and authenticity metrics are defined and handled in general will surely only add to the worries of those who fear Musk is far from the best person to lead the company.