By Kelvin Chan
Elon Musk said Friday that his plan to buy Twitter for $44 billion is “temporarily on hold” as he tries to pinpoint the exact number of spam and fake accounts on the social media platform, another twist amid signs of internal turmoil over the proposed acquisition.
Musk has been vocal about his desire to clean up Twitter's problem with “spam bots” that mimic real people and appeared to question whether the company was underreporting them.
In a tweet, the Tesla billionaire linked to a Reuters story from May 2 about a quarterly report from Twitter that estimated false or spam accounts made up fewer than 5% of the company’s “monetizable daily active users” in the first quarter.
“Twitter deal temporarily on hold pending details supporting calculation that spam/fake accounts do indeed represent less than 5% of users,” Musk said, indicating he’s skeptical that the number of inauthentic accounts is that low.
It wasn’t clear whether the issue could scuttle the deal. Musk later tweeted that he’s “still committed to acquisition.”
Neither Twitter nor Musk responded early Friday to requests for comment.
The issue of fake accounts on Twitter is not secret.
In its quarterly filing with the SEC, even Twitter doubted that its count of bot accounts was correct, conceding that the estimate may be low. “In making this determination, we applied significant judgment, so our estimation of false or spam accounts may not accurately represent the actual number of such accounts, and the actual number of false or spam accounts could be higher than we have estimated,” the filing says.
A review of Twitter filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission shows that the estimate of spam bot accounts and similar language expressing doubts about it have been in Twitter's quarterly and annual reports for at least two years, well before Musk made his offer and it would have been known to him and his advisors.
Stock in both Twitter and Tesla swung sharply in opposite directions Friday, with Twitter’s stock falling nearly 6% and shares of Tesla, which Musk had proposed using to help fund the Twitter deal, jumping nearly 7% in trading before the opening bell.
Investors have had to weigh legal troubles for Musk, as well as the possibility that acquiring Twitter could be a distraction from running the world’s most valuable automaker. The proposed deal continued to pressure shares of Tesla, which had already fallen 16% this week.
The sharp jump in the price of Tesla shares before the opening bell Friday singled rising doubts that the acquisition of Twitter will take place.
Musk has already sold off more than $8 billion worth of his Tesla shares to finance the purchase.
Elon Musk, Tesla CEO, right, claps hands at the opening of the Tesla factory Berlin Brandenburg in Gruenheide, Germany, Tuesday, March 22, 2022. (Patrick Pleul/Pool via AP, File)
Originally Musk had committed to borrowing $12.5 billion with Tesla stock as collateral to buy Twitter. He also would borrow $13 billion from banks and put up $21 billion in Tesla equity.
Last week, Musk strengthened the equity stake in his offer for Twitter with commitments of more than $7 billion from a diverse group of investors including Silicon Valley heavy hitters like Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison.
Money from the new investors cuts the amount borrowed on the value of Tesla stock to $6.25 billion, according to the filing. The Tesla equity share could go from $21 billion to $27.25 billion.
Wedbush analyst Dan Ives, who follows both Tesla and Twitter, said Musk's “bizarre” tweet will lead Wall Street to either think the deal is likely falling apart, Musk is attempting to negotiate a lower deal price, or he is simply walking away from the deal with a $1 billion penalty.
“Many will view this as Musk using this Twitter filing/spam accounts as a way to get out of this deal in a vastly changing market,” Ives wrote.
CEO Elon Musk departs from the justice center in Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, July 13, 2021. Musk says his planned $44 billion purchase of Twitter is "temporarily on hold" pending details on spam and fake accounts on the social media platform. The announcement that the Tesla billionaire tweeted Friday, May 13, 2022 is another twist amid signs of internal turmoil over his planned buyout of Twitter. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
He added that the Musk's use of Twitter rather than a financial filing to make the announcement was troubling and “sends this whole deal into a circus show with many questions and no concrete answers as to the path of this deal going forward.”
Musk’s tweet comes a day after the social media company fired two of its top managers. Twitter said the company is pausing most hiring, except for critical roles, and is “pulling back on non-labor costs to ensure we are being responsible and efficient.”
In a memo sent to employees and confirmed by Twitter, CEO Parag Agrawal said the company has not hit growth and revenue milestones after the company began to invest “aggressively” to expand its user base and revenue.
AP Business Writer Michelle Chapman in New York contributed to this report.