A narrow 51.8 percent of his audience voted to “Reinstate former President Trump,” leading the billionaire CEO to reinstate the infamous account. A week later, Musk once again turned to a Twitter poll to ask his followers whether to jailbreak the hordes of accounts suspended for posting far-right content, Qanon conspiracy theories, and lies about the 2020 election and the Covid-19 pandemic.
There’s just one problem, multiple former Twitter employees say. The social network’s polls are magnets for bots and other inauthentic accounts. They’re literally designed to be spammed and gamed.
“One of the first products I worked on was polls. And one of the big discussions was around the tradeoffs between integrity and privacy – keeping logs [or each user’s vote] or not. We landed on the side of privacy,” Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former Head of Trust and Safety who resigned this month, told Rolling Stone.
“Polls are more prone to manipulation than almost anything else [on Twitter]. It’s interesting, given his [Elon’s] use of polls,” he added. Several other ex-Twitter employees gave similar assessments.
Twitter did not immediately respond to questions from Rolling Stone, likely because Musk fired the company’s communications team.
The reliance on bot-heavy polls is doubly ironic, given that Musk once balked at buying the company over concerns that there were too many inauthentic accounts on the platform. Now he’s all-but-counting on them in order to justify big decisions about Twitter’s future.
“A Twitter poll can be manipulated, there’s nothing scientific or rigorous in any way about what he’s doing,” Sarah T. Roberts, a former Twitter employee and current faculty director for UCLA’s Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, told the Washington Post.
Musk’s reliance on polls, former employees say, illustrates just how little Twitter’s new owner understands about the platform and the problems he once claimed to be deeply concerned about.
Before completing his purchase of Twitter, Musk announced in May that his $44 billion offer for the company was “temporarily on hold pending details” of Twitter’s estimate that no more than five percent of its users were “bots.” As Twitter and Musk feuded over his offer to buy the company, the Tesla CEO suggested that as many as 20 percent of Twitter accounts could be fake and pledged that he would lead a crusade against “bots” which would “succeed or die trying”
When Musk acted as a self-appointed envoy between Russia and Ukraine, the billionaire displayed at least a dim understanding that the polling feature could theoretically be gamed when users voted down his proposal for a peace deal. “The bot attack on this poll is strong!” he replied to one fan as Twitter users panned his idea.
But his attitude towards the feature has changed as the results have affirmed his own preferences for how to run Twitter. When his Twitter polls indicated support to reinstate suspended accounts and bring back Trump, Musk sanctified with blurbs of Latin claiming “the voice of the people is the voice of God.”
“I don’t think there’s anyone left to tell him [that the polls are basically bogus],” one former Twitter employee, who asked to remain anonymous, told Rolling Stone. “The number of people who understand polls that are left – it’s basically zero.”
The company uses a range of proprietary tools, like the spam-fighting “botmaker,” billed as the company’s in-house tool for “principled defense against unsolicited content” in order to police manipulation of the platform. But Twitter’s polls, former staffers say, aren’t connected to tools like botmaker that can prevent spammy or inauthentic behavior.
“When someone says. ‘Oh we must be protecting polls, right?’ No, we’re not,” the former Twitter employee told Rolling Stone.
In the years since the feature debuted, a small industry of spammers has cropped up to offer services manipulating the results of a Twitter poll with inauthentic accounts. The spammers allow users to buy votes in chunks, some offering 15,000 votes on a given poll for a little over $130 or smaller responses for just 19 cents a vote with “guaranteed fast delivery” that’s “100% Confidential.”
“When someone says. ‘Oh we must be protecting polls, right?’ No, we’re not.”
Musk’s claims of recent user growth may be flawed for the same bot-plagued reasons, former staffers say. Under his leadership, Twitter recently told advertisers that monetizable daily active users have grown 20 percent and Musk himself tweeted that “Twitter usage is at an all-time high.”
But it’s not clear how much of that claimed growth is authentic. Asked whether those numbers could be inflated by spam accounts, the former Twitter staffer told Rolling Stone: “No fucking doubt.”
“Think about it: On any given week, [the security] team removed millions of accounts manually,” the source said.
After Musk slashed Twitter’s workforce—particularly its trust and safety teams—the company is now left with fewer staff available to block those millions of would-be spammers booted under the former management.
Twitter polls were never meant to be scientific — just a fun way to get users to engage. These days, at best they reflect a snapshot of sentiment among Musk’s legions of adoring fanboy followers.
“The main factor making them unreliable is simply that Elon’s most engaged followers these days are big right-wing accounts, so the polls skew extremely right-wing when they’re first put up,” a pseudonymous researcher who posts some of the most extensive investigations into inauthentic activity on the platform — and was viewed by many inside Twitter as authoritative. He goes by the handle Conspirador Norteño. “It’s possible that inauthentic accounts are being used to game this further, but hard to be sure since there’s no way to tell what accounts voted in any given poll.”