What Texas Gains by Investigating Twitter’s Fake Accounts

Ad Blocker Detected

Our website is made possible by displaying online advertisements to our visitors. Please consider supporting us by disabling your ad blocker.

When Elon Musk said on Twitter last month that he planned to vote Republican and predicted that Democrats would mount a “dirty tricks campaign against me,” he received a warm response from Ken Paxton, the attorney general of Texas.

“Believe me when I say, ‘I understand,’” Mr. Paxton tweeted on May 24, the same day he won a bruising Republican primary runoff for re-election, despite being accused of wrongdoing by former aides and facing criminal indictment in state court for securities fraud.

This week, Mr. Paxton again aligned himself with Mr. Musk. The state attorney general said Texas was opening an investigation into Twitter and demanded the company turn over information about automated accounts that can spread spam on the service. Mr. Paxton made the announcement shortly after Mr. Musk, who has agreed to buy Twitter for $44 billion, threatened to pull out of the blockbuster deal because, he said, the company refused to disclose how many fake accounts populate the platform.

The move was in keeping with the playbook of Mr. Paxton, a Republican who has made a name for himself by supporting former President Donald J. Trump in his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. The 59-year-old has long had an affinity for the spotlight, appearing regularly on Fox News and grabbing headlines with high-profile lawsuits, including against the Biden administration over immigration policy and local governments in Texas over pandemic rules.

But opening an investigation into Twitter does more than raise attention. It is also likely to yield political benefits to Mr. Paxton.

The attorney general has sought in recent years to endear himself to conservative voters who believe that social media platforms are stifling right-wing voices. When Twitter barred Mr. Trump last year after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Mr. Paxton demanded that the company detail how it decides to keep posts up and what it takes down. Twitter unsuccessfully challenged the request in court.

The investigation could also bring Mr. Paxton closer to Mr. Musk, the world’s richest man, who also runs the electric carmaker Tesla and the rocket company SpaceX. Mr. Musk moved to Texas from California in 2020. In December, Tesla relocated its headquarters to the Austin area, where it is building a factory that has promised to employ thousands. SpaceX also has a facility in Brownsville, Texas, a city in the south that has painted his likeness on a mural downtown.

“He’s kind of crusading on this issue because he actually sees it as a political benefit to him,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican political consultant who has worked on campaigns in Texas, including for Senator John Cornyn and for Mr. Paxton’s wife, Angela, a state senator. “Big Tech is a huge part of the conversation on the right.”

A spokesman declined to make Mr. Paxton available for an interview. Twitter declined to comment, and Mr. Musk did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Paxton, a former state representative who cultivated the conservative grass roots of the Republican Party, was first elected attorney general in 2014. He promised to fight the Affordable Care Act and defend Texas’ voter identification law.

But he has spent nearly his entire time as attorney general stalked by accusations of misconduct, including a criminal indictment for securities fraud from 2015. The charges stem from accusations that Mr. Paxton failed to register as an investment adviser representative and misled investors by encouraging them to invest in a company but not telling them that the company would pay him. The case has yet to go to trial.

Last year, many of Mr. Paxton’s top aides, themselves staunch conservatives, turned whistle-blowers and accused him of bribery, abuse of power and other potential criminal acts in connection with an Austin real estate investor. Those accusations, made to the F.B.I., kicked off a federal inquiry that still hangs over Mr. Paxton’s head. He has denied wrongdoing in both cases.

Even so, Mr. Paxton won the Republican primary last month, handily defeating the land commissioner, George P. Bush, a member of the political dynasty. He did so partly by playing the politics of Texas correctly, which has been his great talent.

Mr. Paxton joined Mr. Trump in trying to overturn the results of the 2020 election, going so far as to sue states where Mr. Trump had lost, accusing them of fraud. Mr. Paxton appeared with Mr. Trump in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, at a rally that drew thousands, some of whom went on to storm the U.S. Capitol. Mr. Trump endorsed Mr. Paxton last year, helping to propel him past his scandals and through the Republican primary.

Mr. Paxton has echoed the former president in another way: by attacking tech companies. In 2020, Mr. Paxton’s office, joined by nine other states, filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google. The lawsuit argued that the internet giant had abused its control over the opaque system that delivers ads online.

After the Jan. 6 riot, Mr. Paxton sent investigative demands not only to Twitter but also to Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, asking for details of content moderation practices.

Twitter fought back. In a March 2021 filing challenging Mr. Paxton’s demands, the company said he was “unlawfully abusing his authority” to “intimidate, harass and target” it for exercising its First Amendment rights to moderate its platform. Twitter’s challenge was rejected by a federal judge for being made too early; an appeals court ruled against Twitter in March.

In announcing his latest inquiry into Twitter, Mr. Paxton’s office said automated accounts on the service “can not only reduce the quality of users’ experience on the platform but may also inflate the value of the company and the costs of doing business with it,” harming Texans in the process. Officials asked Twitter to hand over detailed records of how many “inauthentic” accounts have been on the platform every month since 2017.

How Elon Musk’s Twitter Deal Unfolded

Card 1 of 6

A blockbuster deal. Elon Musk, the world’s wealthiest man, capped what seemed an improbable attempt by the famously mercurial billionaire to buy Twitter for roughly $44 billion. Here’s how the deal unfolded:

The initial offer. Mr. Musk made an unsolicited bid worth more than $40 billion for the influential social network, saying that he wanted to make Twitter a private company and that he wanted people to be able to speak more freely on the service.

“If Twitter is misrepresenting how many accounts are fake to drive up their revenue, I have a duty to protect Texans,” Mr. Paxton said in a statement.

The investigation echoed a letter to Twitter on Monday from Mr. Musk’s lawyers, who said the company had “refused” to provide information about fake accounts. The lack of disclosure was a “clear material breach of Twitter’s obligations under the merger agreement,” the lawyers wrote, giving Mr. Musk the right to break off the agreement.

Twitter has since decided to give Mr. Musk access to the stream of tweets that are posted to the site, a person with knowledge of the decision said on Wednesday.

Mr. Paxton does not appear to have a relationship with Mr. Musk. But Texas politicians have courted the billionaire for years, cheering as his companies have expanded in the state.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who is a frequent Twitter user, has publicly supported Mr. Musk’s efforts to take over the company. “Bring Twitter to Texas to join Tesla, SpaceX and the Boring Company,” Mr. Abbott said in a message to Mr. Musk in April on Twitter.

Still, multiple Texas political operatives said they doubted Mr. Paxton’s investigation into Twitter would bring Mr. Musk — or his money — into the state’s Republican fold.

“It’s hard to imagine Elon ever being politically engaged,” said Matt Mackowiak, a political consultant and the chair of the Travis County Republican Party, which includes Austin.

Democrats in Texas attacked Mr. Paxton’s investigation of Twitter, which was announced less than two weeks after the killing of 19 elementary school children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas.

“This is a distraction,” said Rochelle Garza, a civil rights lawyer and the Democratic candidate for attorney general running against Mr. Paxton. “This is what he does with his office. He distracts from the real issues that people care about.”

Ms. Garza added: “He should have launched an independent investigation into what occurred and what led to all these children dying. Instead he’s going after Twitter bots.”