How Elon Musk’s attempt to drag out the Twitter trial could backfire

Content warning: I’m about to do a close read while violating the principles of New Criticism.

I woke up annoyingly this morning, so we’re going to take a closer look at this internet artifact: a semi-viral tweet in which Elon Musk discusses Twitter bots in what appears to be some sort of hazy conference room. However, there is an audience – you can hear them laughing.

“Anyone who uses Twitter knows full well that the comment threads are filled with scams, spam, and lots of fake accounts. It doesn’t seem reasonable for Twitter to claim that the number of truly unique people is over 95%. Does anyone have that experience?” — @Elon Musk pic.twitter.com/XivtjhEBu3

— Pranay Pathhole (@PPathole) August 6, 2022

Here’s a slightly edited version of what Musk says in this video clip:

… it’s extremely basic and anyone who uses Twitter knows full well that the threads are full of spam, scams and just a bunch of fake accounts. So it doesn’t seem reasonable for Twitter to claim that… the number of truly unique people you see commenting on Twitter every day is over 95 percent… That’s what they’re claiming. Does anyone have that experience? [laughter from the audience and from Musk] Precisely.

The video has been cut out the All-In Summit in May (his comments start at two o’clock or so). By the time of this recording, Musk had signed the deal to acquire Twitter for $44 billion.

Now to the content. Musk says that “anyone who uses Twitter is well aware that the comment threads are full of spam, scams and just a bunch of fake accounts.” This is a bit of an exaggeration – my answer guys are top notch – but it touches on something true. No one can claim that they have not noticed bots, spammers and people impersonating Musk to get your money. I’ve noticed a lot of them in Musk’s mentions.

Musk goes on to ask if anyone has the experience dealing with real people 95 percent of the time, much to the laughter of the audience and his own chuckle. The intention here, with Apologies to John Crowe Ransomis to instill contempt for the idea that 95 percent of Twitter accounts are people.

If you watch the longer video – not just the clip – Musk is being interviewed. The clip on Twitter stops before Musk suggests that if you think you mostly hang out with people, “there’s a bridge I’d like to sell you.” (I… would I like to hear about the bridge?) He then goes on to suggest that the “lowest estimate” of fake accounts is about 20 percent. This estimate doesn’t seem to be based on anything – if there is a source, Musk is certainly not citing it.

Just strategically, “why am I not more popular” isn’t a good question to ask in public?

Musk also brags that he has the most popular tweet of all people, about acquiring Coca-Cola “to put the cocaine back in”‘, a stunt I’d support if I thought Musk could actually close the deal. Musk wonders, why isn’t this popular tweet even more popular? Literally, he says, “Twitter says the revenue-generating daily active users [on the platform] amounts to 217 million. So why should the most popular tweet ever actually be just two, two and a half percent of the entire user base?”

When the camera returns to the in-person event, David Friedberg appears to be holding his forehead. One possible answer, Elon, is that a lot of people use reverse chronological feeds, so if you didn’t tweet it while they were actively watching Twitter, they wouldn’t see it. Or maybe, just maybe, they didn’t think it was very funny! Just strategically, “why am I not more popular” isn’t a good question to ask in public because someone will answer it.

Musk digs in further. (Again, I’ve edited this quote lightly to make it sound like he’s speaking in full sentences.) “Something isn’t right here. My concern is – it’s not if it’s 5 or 7 or 8 percent, but are they potentially 80 percent or 90 percent bots? I’m sure there are real people on Twitter. Is it an order of magnitude? Is it 50 percent instead of 5?”

The added context doesn’t really improve the clip – it makes it worse. I say “worse” because Musk’s lawyers have to argue that he was ripped off by Twitter to get out of the contract he signed. So he should have believed the claims Twitter made about his user base and then be surprised to find that out, oops, no. But this video contradicts that idea – it suggests that everyone knows that Twitter is full of bots. There’s no way Twitter lied to him.

Twitter almost certainly has a huge team of sad junior lawyers searching YouTube for any comments Musk has made

Forget the argument about whether inauthentic accounts matter to the Twitter deal. We don’t even have to have this conversation! Here’s Musk saying he was sure Twitter was full of bots and scams, like any normal person would. That’s why the clip went viral. Will Twitter’s lawyers use it? Who knows! But it’s leverage, honey.

Musk talks a lot in public, which means Twitter almost certainly has a freaky huge team of sad junior lawyers searching YouTube for comments Musk has made that will screw up his case.

That may not mean a dramatic moment in court. The public drama of subpoenas and so on obscures a possible private drama. Look, Twitter has to act like it’s going to force Musk to buy the company — but if the real goal is just a huge payout, above and beyond the $1 billion required by the contract Musk signed, then this kind of leverage means Twitter can ask for even more money to make himself whole. Or, I think, a reduced acquisition price, but that seems like a loss for Twitter. Personally, I’d start negotiations with a nice, cool $15 billion payout for my effort, while keeping Twitter independent.

How do I get that number? Musk sold another $6.9 billion – nicely – worth of Tesla stock, more than the $8.4 billion he sold in April, despite tweeting “no further TSLA sales planned after today” on April 28. So that’s $15.3 billion Musk made from Tesla stock, which he claims he only sold for the Twitter deal.

The longer this goes on, the more opportunities Musk has to shoot himself in the foot

Musk’s alleged rationale for the new sales is to “avoid an emergency sale of Tesla stock” if Twitter forces the deal to close and “some stock partners don’t get through.” Okay? This doesn’t help? Part of Twitter’s lawsuit alleges Musk screwed up funding efforts he was obligated to carry out. Selling more Tesla stock in case some partners don’t make it through makes Twitter’s allegations seem more serious, even if Musk doesn’t have enough money to close the deal yourself.

But for now, we have more legal quarrels. Musk want the names of the Twitter employees involved in the bottlings. I imagine Twitter is shielding these people for a reason: After Musk publicly criticized Vijaya Gadde, general adviser at Twitter, Gadde was also harassed online. My former drinking buddy Casey Newton thinks this request for names is a sign that Musk is waving.

I agree that Musk waves, but I don’t think that’s why he wants names. This is one way to try and drag the case out and punish Twitter in the process. Musk’s motive here is to make the lawsuit as long and painful and thorough as possible so that Twitter is more amenable to settlement. The thing is, given the extensive public record of Musk’s comments, and a likely extensive private account, Twitter probably won’t blink.

But the longer this goes on, the more opportunities Musk has to shoot himself in the foot. For example: Tesla’s stock sale. At one point, Musk said that “the difference between Tesla worth a lot of money and essentially worth zero” is whether the company is successfully solving self-driving driving. But his sales, presumably to Twitter — though if the deal doesn’t close, who knows what he’ll do with that money — are a problem for Tesla. Look, Tesla hasn’t managed to drive itself yet, so it might be worth zero. That makes Musk look like he’s getting out while getting it right.

Correction 12:45 PT: This article initially misidentified David Friedberg as Peter Thiel. We regret the mistake.

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