Hours after Tesla CEO Elon Musk informed Twitter that he wanted to terminate their $44 billion acquisition deal, prompting the social media network to declare it would sue, a rumor started spreading on Twitter. It goes like this: Twitter felt so betrayed that Musk was backing out of the deal that it had suspended his account. While that would certainly make for juicy internet drama, it’s just not true.
The rumor seems to have begun with a tweeted screenshot, shared by the satire and meme account @HighyieldHarry, showing that Musk’s account had been suspended. At first glance, the screenshot appears to be realistic—the user handle looks just like the @elonmusk account that regularly wreaks havoc online. In fact, if you click on the supposed Musk account in @HighyieldHarry’s tweet, it takes you to a suspended account’s page.
Internet sleuths and misinformation researchers on Twitter quickly figured out the trick. @elonmusk was the tech billionaire’s real account and was still active. The other one, meanwhile, was a fake account. If you can’t see the difference (I sure couldn’t): the fake account actually reads “@eionmusk.” It just looks like Musk’s real account because the culprit capitalized the “i.”
Twitter confirmed to Gizmodo early Monday that the @eionmusk account had been suspended for impersonation and pointed us to its misleading and deceptive identities policy.
Notably, the social media network did not take action on the tweet from @HighyieldHarry with the screenshot and the link to “@eionmusk.” The social network does not classify satire or parody as misinformation. As of 6 a.m. ET on Monday, the tweet was still online with no label indicating it was misinformation. To date, it has been retweeted more than 18,600 times, quote tweeted 5,800 times, and liked 135,000 times.
In response to Gizmodo’s inquiry on whether it would act on @HighyieldHarry’s tweet, Twitter said it does not take action on content that includes references or links to impersonated accounts.
Sara Aniano, a disinformation analyst at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told Gizmodo in an email that she was fooled by the fake account for a bit as well, even though she studies misinformation and disinformation “all the time.”
Aniano pointed out that the consequences of this particular case are worth considering because of how contentious the Musk discourse has been over the last few months.
“For his fans and supporters, the prospect of him running the show at Twitter was exciting, and obviously is no longer happening. So if he HAD been banned for some reason, that could generate a lot of anger for proponents of unfettered free speech on social media – one of Musk’s main talking points,” she explained.
Overall, Aniano said that considering there’s “so much confusion in the information ecosystem right now,” she believes that any information that is false or misleading should be subject to content moderation, regardless of intent.
Meanwhile, the real @elonmusk is doing what he does best: sharing memes and laughing about his drama with Twitter. In the early hours on Monday, Musk tweeted a meme of himself stating that Twitter would be forced to disclose information on the number of bots on its platform in court.
The billionaire has been obsessed with the number of fake and spam accounts on Twitter for months and cited the company’s refusal to provide him with all the information he wanted on the matter as one of the reasons for backing out of the deal. Twitter, on the other hand, maintains that the number of fake and spam accounts on its platform is less than 5%, something Musk has doubted for months.
“Preliminary analysis by Mr. Musk’s advisors of the information provided by Twitter to date causes Mr. Musk to strongly believe that the proportion of false and spam accounts included in the reported mDAU [monthly daily active user] count is wildly higher than 5%,” Musk’s lawyers wrote in their letter to Twitter informing the company about the termination of the deal on Friday.
Yet, Musk can’t unilaterally back away from the agreement. In response to Musk’s letter, Twitter’s board chairman Bret Taylor promised legal action.
“The Twitter Board is committed to closing the transaction on the price and terms agreed upon with Mr. Musk and plans to pursue legal action to enforce the merger agreement. We are confident we will prevail in the Delaware Court of Chancery,” Taylor tweeted on Friday.
The Verge reported that Twitter had hired the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, as well as founding partner Martin Lipton, to represent it in its suit against Musk. Martin Lipton is famous for creating the shareholder rights plan, also known as a “poison pill,” in 1983 to defend against hostile takeovers. Onlookers will remember that Twitter initially used a poison pill to stave off Musk’s bid before he charmed his way into their hearts (with money).
According to the outlet, the billionaire has purportedly retained the firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, the same folks who defended him for calling a cave explorer a “pedo guy” and tweeting that he had the “funding secured” to take Tesla private.
Jesse Fried, a Harvard Law School professor, told Gizmodo on Friday that Musk could not simply walk away from the deal and was probably just trying to lower the price.
“Litigation will be costly for Twitter, and it may agree to lower the price to settle the litigation. This is probably Musk’s game plan here,” the professor said.
Update 7/11/2022, 11:52 a.m. ET: This post has been updated with additional comment from disinformation analyst Sara Aniano.