By Fergal Parkinson, Co-founder and Director of TMT Analysis
The world’s richest man has a few problems on his plate of late.
It emerged this month that a senior executive at one of his companies had given birth to twins – of whom Elon Musk is reportedly the father.
And at almost the same time, Twitter revealed that it plans to sue Musk for $1 billion for pulling out of a deal to buy the social media giant.
While I can’t offer much insight into the former issue – except to wish him luck – the latter is very much within my scope of expertise.
And here’s why it matters.
It seems that the reason the Tesla chief decided to drop out of his $44 billion takeover deal was because of his growing concerns about the integrity of the platform’s users. His legal team claimed that unanswered questions about “the prevalence of fake or spam accounts” on the platform had prompted his decision to bail out – and potentially take a £1 billion hit as a consequence.
The question of integrity on Twitter informs so many of the problems it faces: the widespread circulation of dubious content (“fake news”, as it has often been called), hate speech and incitement, misleading follower numbers and so on.
There have been calls from some quarters to force accounts to be registered to real names but Twitter has always, I think rightly, resisted. There are lots of entirely valid reasons why people shouldn’t need to have their full identity visible or traceable when posting tweets – it could put them at odds with their employer, their family or friends or, if they live in a repressive country, at odds with their government regime.
But it’s quite another thing to think that Twitter itself can have no idea who a great number of its users are – or if they even exist at all. Undoubtedly tens of millions of them don’t. One only has to look at the prevalence of identical political messages pumped out by hundreds of purportedly real people. Twitter is plagued by fake and bot accounts.
Even the company itself concedes that at least 5% of accounts are fake – plainly Musk believes the true figure to be far, far higher.
And that is a massive problem for the long-term viability of Twitter itself. If it can be manipulated, if it’s a wild west for cruelty and abuse, if it’s a magnet for thieves and fraudsters, then the brand is in big trouble.
All of which makes it all the more extraordinary to me that Twitter still doesn’t require a linked mobile phone number when creating an account. Every genuine applicant will have one – there are now 7.1 billion registered mobile phone numbers in the world, more than one per adult alive.
And those phone numbers are the surest way short of a full identity check of verifying the authenticity of anyone trying to create an account.
Because mobile phone numbers are such an integral part of online identity that the data around them can tell us a vast amount about their user. At TMT we are able to identify and stop fake accounts at the point of attempted sign-up. By checking the number offered at registration against live telco data we are able to determine if the name/age/addresses offered chime with the number: do they tally? Is it in use? Is it being used in the country it says it is? Are there other data anomalies around the account? And so on.
It takes a matter of microseconds to run these checks and the cost of the check is negligible – particularly when set against the cost of not carrying them out.
For Twitter that has meant reputationally-damaging allegations like allowing Russian secret service agents to manipulate the outcome of elections in the West – or permitting dangerous anti-science content to circulate widely during the pandemic, potentially costing lives and endangering public health.
Admittedly problems like these are unique to the social media giants but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lesson for all businesses with an online presence here.
Anyone with lax security protocols risks becoming a platform where genuine users are easy prey for fraudsters. Anyone who doesn’t know who their users really are is sitting on a big problem.
And that’s where Twitter is today – is that where you want your business to be tomorrow?