Just how many Twitter accounts are spam?

17 May 2022

Image: © Patrick Daxenbichler/Stock.adobe.com

Elon Musk said his Twitter takeover ‘cannot move forward’ until CEO Parag Agrawal provides proof of spam account figures.

Last week, Elon Musk said he was putting his takeover of Twitter “temporarily on hold” because he wants to see how the company calculates the number of spam accounts on its platform.

Now, one estimate has found that figure to be nearly a fifth of all daily active users.

Audience research tool for websites SparkToro conducted an analysis, in collaboration with Twitter analytics tool Followerwonk, and concluded that an estimated 19.42pc of active Twitter accounts are fake or spam.

SparkToro CEO and co-founder Rand Fishkin, who spoke at Future Human last week, wrote in a blog on Sunday (15 May) that the analysis was based on 44,058 active public accounts. He added that the resultant spam account estimate was “conservative”, likely undercounting the actual figure.

Twitter’s response

This figure is four times as high as Twitter’s own estimate. In a filing earlier this month, Twitter said that less than 5pc of monetisable daily active users (mDAUs) are spam, something that was reiterated by Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal yesterday (16 May).

In a long Twitter thread explaining how the company deals with spam and bots, Agrawal said more than half a million spam accounts are suspended on the platform every day, with the company locking millions of accounts each week “that we suspect may be spam” and not real humans.

He added that the “hard challenge” is that there are accounts that look like spam but are actually real accounts, while some of the most “dangerous” spam accounts can look very real.

“Our team updates our systems and rules constantly to remove as much spam as possible, without inadvertently suspending real people or adding unnecessary friction for real people when they use Twitter: none of us want to solve a captcha every time we use Twitter.”

Agrawal also noted, potentially in response to the SparkToro estimate, that Twitter is able to provide accurate estimates of spam accounts because it has access to data that cannot be shared externally.

“We don’t believe that this specific estimation can be performed externally, given the critical need to use both public and private information (which we can’t share). Externally, it’s not even possible to know which accounts are counted as mDAUs on any given day.

“We shared an overview of the estimation process with Elon a week ago and look forward to continuing the conversation with him, and all of you.”

Musk’s ‘crappy’ response

However, Musk did not appear to be convinced. Responding to Agrawal’s tweet suggesting internal data is crucial for a realistic estimate, the Tesla boss posted a smiling faeces emoji.

Later, he asked in the same thread: “So how do advertisers know what they’re getting for their money? This is fundamental to the financial health of Twitter.”

SparkToro’s Fishkin took to Twitter again after Agrawal’s thread, saying he agreed that Twitter mDAUs is “a black box measurement” making it hard for external accuracy, but that he still had unanswered questions.

“If Twitter successfully [identifies] 95pc of the millions of spam accounts in analyses like ours, why leave them active on the platform? He says they remove [500,000 spam accounts per] day. Why are all these obvious spam accounts still here for us to catch?”

At a conference in Miami yesterday, Musk said that, in light of the spam account estimation quagmire, a lower price for his takeover of the social media platform was “not out of the question”, according to the New York Times.

Today, Musk tweeted that even the 20pc estimate for spam accounts on Twitter “could be much higher”.

“My offer was based on Twitter’s SEC filings being accurate. Yesterday, Twitter’s CEO publicly refused to show proof of [the less than 5pc figure]. This deal cannot move forward until he does.”

Meanwhile, Tim O’Brien, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, remarked in a tweet quoting Musk’s doubt over Twitter’s spam account measurements: “Translation: ‘I’d like to get out of this deal before Tesla shares crater any further.’”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic