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Texas AG Issues Civil Demand for Twitter to Provide Information on Bot Accounts

Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, Calif. (right); Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas on July 11, 2021 (left).

Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, Calif. (right)

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) announced Monday that his office was initiating a civil investigation into Twitter over claims the technology company is misrepresenting the number of bot accounts that make up the total number of users on their social media platform.

The request comes by way of a formal civil investigative demand letter under the authority of a statute that authorizes attorney general investigations to protect consumers and businesses in Texas.

“Texans rely on Twitter’s public statements that nearly all its users are real people,” the attorney general said in a press release. “It matters not only for regular Twitter users, but also Texas businesses and advertisers who use Twitter for their livelihoods. If Twitter is misrepresenting how many accounts are fake to drive up their revenue, I have a duty to protect Texans.”

Bots on Twitter come in all shapes and sizes but share a few key characteristics. They are all automated forms of low-level artificial intelligence that can and do send tweets, follow other users, and generally interact on Twitter like actual human beings. Many of the platform’s most popular accounts are bots used for certain functions and identify themselves as non-human – or at least perform tasks that indicate they aren’t people. Other bots, the vast majority, effectively pretend to be real users and are considered a form of spam.

Spam bot accounts run up follower accounts to make some users appear substantially more popular than they actually are, swarm commentators who use keywords during contentious news cycles, and have been used to artificially help topics trend.

Twitter has not been accused of a crime. Nor has a civil lawsuit actually been filed. Rather, Texas is making a demand for documents based under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, a consumer protection law. The DTPA used to be one of the most vibrant consumer protection statutes in the nation before it was substantially weakened by the GOP-controlled state legislature after heavy lobbying from the insurance industry in 2017.

“This Civil Investigative Demand is relevant to the subject matter of an investigation of possible violations of sections 17.46(a) and (b) of the DTPA in the false, deceptive, or misleading representation of Twitter’s users and advertising audience,” the CID issued by Paxton’s office says.

Under the relevant section of Lone Star State law, Paxton is requesting a vast array of documents spanning 23 categories.

Those requests include documents that show: “the number of monthly active users of Twitter for each month from 2017 to the present,” “the highest number of daily active users of Twitter for each month from 2017 to the present,” “Twitter’s ‘average monetizable daily active users’ for each month from 2017 to the present,” “the number of monthly active users of Twitter in Texas for each month from 2017 to the present,” “the number of Inauthentic Twitter Accounts for each month from 2017 to the present, broken down by category of inauthentic account (i.e., Fake Account, Spammer Account, and Bot Account), if available,” and “the amount of revenue generated by Twitter (by year) for the placement of advertisements targeting Persons in Texas on Twitter using Twitter Ads since 2017.”

Additionally, the state is asking for “[a]ll public statements you have made quantifying the number of Twitter users, including but not limited to statements made or caused to be made to regulators, to the media, to advertisers, and on your website and/or blog during the time from January 1, 2017, to the present.”

The request from Texas’s highest law enforcement official comes amidst a high-profile contretemps between Twitter and Elon Musk, who has said his much-discussed bid to takeover the company was put on hold due to concerns that the number of bot accounts has been misstated.

Paxton’s press release takes stock of this discord without mentioning the Tesla CEO by name.

“Twitter has received intense scrutiny in recent weeks over claiming in its financial regulatory filings that fewer than 5% of all users are bots, when they may in fact comprise as much as 20% or more,” the attorney general’s office said. “The difference could dramatically affect the cost to Texas consumers and businesses who transact with Twitter.”

[images: Twitter HQ via Justin Sullivan/Getty Images; Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton via Brandon Bell/Getty Images]

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