Elon Subpoenas Twitter Whistleblower to Testify About Counting Bots

Twitter whistleblower Pieter Zatko said that "deliberate ignorance was the norm" on the issue of spam bots among the social network's executive team.

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Remember when Elon Musk was actually excited to buy Twitter? Seems like ages ago.
Remember when Elon Musk was actually excited to buy Twitter? Seems like ages ago.
Image: FellowNeko (Shutterstock)

There’s a new twist in As Elon’s World Turns, which is what I imagine the tech billionaire’s soap opera would be called. After months of Musk claiming bots were the reason he wanted to terminate his deal to buy the social media company, a Twitter whistleblower may have handed the billionaire fresh ammunition in his battle.

Former Twitter head of security Peiter Zatko, who was fired from the blue bird app in January, submitted a complaint alleging the company maintained lax security protocols and lied to government regulators, first published on Tuesday by CNN and the Washington Post. Besides detailing “extreme, egregious deficiencies” in security, Zatko spoke about a topic that Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been obsessed with for months: Twitter’s spam bots.

In his complaint, Zatko said that Twitter’s executives don’t care about finding out the actual amount of spam bots on its platform, which the company has for years publicly stated is less than 5%. However, even if they did want to figure it out, the former executive maintains that Twitter doesn’t have the resources or impetus to do so.

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“Twitter executives have little or no personal incentive to accurately ‘detect’ or measure the prevalence of spam bots,” Zatko alleged. He added that “deliberate ignorance was the norm” among Twitter’s executive team.

In addition, Zatko claims that Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal misled the public about the company’s spam systems, making them out to be more sophisticated than what they were. Agrawal was also “lying” when he said that the company was “strongly incentivized to detect and remove as much spam as we possibly can,” according to the whistleblower.

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“Agrawal’s Tweets and Twitter’s previous blog posts misleadingly imply that Twitter employs proactive, sophisticated systems to measure and block spam bots,” Zatko said in his complaint. “The reality: mostly outdated, unmonitored, simple scripts plus overworked, inefficient, understaffed, and reactive human teams.”

According to CNN, Zatko had a tense relationship with Agrawal.

Moreover, sources told the Post that Twitter keeps several internal tallies of spam and bots that are not provided to Wall Street. The outlet obtained an internal document with these numbers that was supposedly shown to Twitter’s board at a meeting Zatko attended. The billionaire believes that Twitter is lying about the number of bots on its platform, a fact which, if true, he states affects the value of the company he agreed to buy for $44 billion. Twitter denies that its bot numbers are inaccurate.

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In response, Musk tweeted, “So spam prevalence *was* shared with the board, but the board chose not disclose that to the public …

The whistleblower’s claims prompted moves from Musk’s lawyers as well, who have subpoenaed Zatko. An unnamed source told the Post that Musk’s lawyers had summoned Zatko and scheduled a deposition with him before articles about the complaint published.

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“We have already issued a subpoena for Mr. Zatko, and we found his exit and that of other key employees curious in light of what we have been finding,” Alex Spiro, a partner at the firm Quinn Emanuel and one of the lawyers representing Musk, told Gizmodo in an email on Tuesday.

As noted by the Post, as Twitter’s head of security, Zatko was not directly in charge of eliminating bots, although he was involved in some aspects of it.

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Nonetheless, in a statement published on its website, Whistleblower Aid, the nonprofit that represented Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen and which is also representing Zatko, said that Zatko would speak about events during his time at Twitter if asked to do so via “lawful, properly authorized disclosures including subpoenas.” Whistleblower Aid did not respond to request for comment.

Musk, for his part, seemed intrigued by Zatko’s revelations. He tweeted an image of Jiminy Cricket, the cricket from Disney’s Pinocchio, along with the phrase: “Give a Little Whistle.”

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When asked about Zatko’s claims regarding Twitter’s apathy for the number of bots on its platform as its purported inability to calculate the number, a Twitter spokesperson sent out the company’s boilerplate statement on the whistleblower. It did not directly answer our questions about Zatko’s bot claims.

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“Mr. Zatko was fired from his senior executive role at Twitter in January 2022 for ineffective leadership and poor performance. What we’ve seen so far is a false narrative about Twitter and our privacy and data security practices that is riddled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies and lacks important context,” a Twitter spokesperson said. “Mr. Zatko’s allegations and opportunistic timing appear designed to capture attention and inflict harm on Twitter, its customers and its shareholders.”