About Elon Musk’s Twitter poll and about Twitter polls generally

Portrait of Elon Musk. Photograph by Debbie Rowe, July 13, 2018, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

The first thing to understand about Elon Musk’s poll on Twitter, asking whether Donald Trump should return to the platform, which is true of any poll on Twitter, is that it does not rely on representative sample. It is rather what is called a “snowball” sample. Musk has his followers, many of whom saw and responded to the poll, some of whom retweeted it, so that others, including his non-followers might respond. As word spreads, some other folks on Twitter looked on Musk’s timeline and found the poll, responding and retweeting in turn.

It’s more efficient than most snowball samples, because in this case, thanks to the facts that Musk is so prominent and thus attracts a lot of attention, and that Musk has so many followers (according to his profile page, 117.9 million of them), his polls do reach a lot of people very rapidly, but it’s still a snowball sample. It’s not a random sample, which would be of randomly selected people meant to represent the entire population (“population” here being of Twitter users).

Because it’s not a random sample, the results are not generalizable to the entire population (again, of Twitter users). The results apply strictly to those who voted and that anyone takes these results seriously is only one symptom of a worsening problem we have with information in this society that I may eventually take up in another post.

It gets worse. Not all followers are real people. Some are bots. Different folks come up with different numbers, but 70 percent of Musk’s followers may be bots. Back in June, when Musk was trying to get out of buying Twitter, because, he claimed, Twitter had not been honest about how many bots were on the platform,[1] it was reported,

In the three weeks since Mr. [Elon] Musk cited fake accounts as a reason for putting his planned $44 billion acquisition of Twitter Inc. “on hold,” observers and participants in the deal have puzzled over the thinking behind the tycoon’s comments. The issue isn’t new for Mr. Musk, who has complained for years about Twitter’s ability to measure and manage automated accounts on the platform that often produce spam.

Whatever his intention in raising the issue, it is clear that Mr. Musk has had unusually extensive interactions with bots. As a habitual tweeter with more than 95 million followers, the Tesla Inc. CEO likely has far greater exposure and experience with fake and spam accounts than most on the social-media platform, researchers say. One estimate says spam, fake or inactive accounts make up the vast majority of his followers.[2]

Bot accounts aren’t readily distinguishable from other accounts, which is why the question of how many bots are on Twitter is so vexing. At scale, it’s probably impossible to tell. And such accounts have all the capabilities of other accounts.

Like other accounts, bots can post. They can respond to Twitter polls. I’ve seen allegations that Russia is behind Musk’s bots and whatever the truth of that, it’s to be expected that Vladimir Putin’s buddy Yegeny Prigozhin’s efforts to influence U.S. politics[3] include bots on Twitter. And we know what chums Putin and Trump are, even before we get to the money. That’s really a side issue: Whomever controls the bots controls a lot of votes on Twitter polls.

I myself voted no on Musk’s poll, twice. How? I have two accounts, one private, one public. I’m mostly in the private account, but need to surface into the public one when I want to interact with people who aren’t my followers. But both can and did vote. Assume that others, some against, some for, did the same.

But with Trump’s devotees, it’s “democracy” when they get the result they want and “fraud” when they don’t. Musk got the result he wanted and now Trump’s account is back on the platform.[4]

  1. [1]Sarah E. Needleman, “Elon Musk’s followers include a lot of bots,” MarketWatch, June 5, 2022, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/elon-musks-followers-include-a-lot-of-bots-11654478074
  2. [2]Sarah E. Needleman, “Elon Musk’s followers include a lot of bots,” MarketWatch, June 5, 2022, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/elon-musks-followers-include-a-lot-of-bots-11654478074
  3. [3]Reuters, “Russia’s Prigozhin admits interfering in U.S. elections,” November 7, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/us/russias-prigozhin-admits-interfering-us-elections-2022-11-07/
  4. [4]Liz Moyer, “Elon Musk Reinstates Trump on Twitter. Trump Shrugs,” Barron’s, November 20, 2022, https://www.barrons.com/articles/elon-musk-reinstates-trump-on-twitter-trump-shrugs-51668964354; Kelly Rissman, “Donald Trump’s Twitter Account Has Been Reactivated But Will He Return?” Vanity Fair, November 20, 2022, https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2022/11/donald-trump-twitter-account-has-been-reactivated; Vlad Savov, “Musk Welcomes Ye Back to Twitter After Inviting Trump’s Return,” Bloomberg, November 20, 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-11-21/musk-welcomes-ye-back-to-twitter-after-inviting-trump-s-return; Faiz Siddiqui, Drew Harwell and Isaac Arnsdorf , “Elon Musk restores Trump’s Twitter account,” Washington Post, November 19, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/11/19/trump-musk-twitter/

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