Why Elon Musk’s Battle Against Twitter Bots Is Actually Personal

In the three weeks since Elon Musk cited fake accounts as the reason to halt his planned $44 billion acquisition of Twitter, observers and deal participants alike have been puzzled by the thinking behind the tycoon’s comments.

The problem is not new to Musk, who has complained for years about Twitter’s ability to measure and manage automated accounts on the platform that often produce spam.

Whatever his intention in raising the question, it’s clear that Musk has had unusually extensive interactions with bots. As a regular tweeter with over 95 million followers, the Tesla. According to the researchers, the CEO likely has far more exposure and experience with fake accounts and spam than most on the social media platform. According to one estimate, spam, fake or inactive accounts make up the vast majority of its subscribers.

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Musk is “an outlier among outliers,” said Darius Kazemi, a computer programmer who has spent a decade building and studying bots and is currently a senior software engineer at Meedan, a tech nonprofit that aims to fight misinformation. “His experience is going to be different not just from the average user, but from the average celebrity.”

Musk did not respond to requests for comment. Twitter declined to comment for this article but defended its fight against spam accounts.

Researchers say Musk’s prominence and interaction with other users, as well as the topics he tweets about, make him a magnet for people looking to spread spam and other suspicious content. He’s tweeted almost daily for the past four years, and most of his tweets are mentions or replies to other users, encouraging attention seekers – humans and bots – to respond to him.

Others with huge followings – like former President Barack Obama, singer Justin Bieber and footballer Cristiano Ronaldo – don’t tweet as often or engage as much.

Spam and fake accounts are an industry-wide problem and can cause problems for advertisers and poor user experiences. Accounts can be difficult to detect and are usually managed by bots, which are computer programs capable of automating posts and replies. Many bots have been programmed to achieve illicit goals, such as spreading false information and tricking people into spending money, tech and social media analysts say, but others have more benign goals, such as sharing news and weather alerts.

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Musk’s sudden escalation of the bots problem last month raised suspicions among observers that he was using it as a negotiating tactic to drive the price down amid a swoon market or to get out of the deal. redemption. That’s partly because he complained about fake accounts on Twitter for years – long before he agreed to buy the platform in late April, part of which he gave up on due diligence. detailed on the agreement. In 2018, he tweeted, “Lots of fake accounts on Twitter characterized by high follow-to-follower ratio to make it look like a lot of real people when they’re not. Wondering why.”

Musk’s feed is awash with tweets peddling products, asking for money and pushing political agendas from what may be bots, coordinated groups or individuals. Replies to a recent tweet from Musk about computer programming, for example, touted new digital currencies for pet owners and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community. Some bots are transparent, including one whose bio says it’s automated to explain tweets in simpler words.

Outside estimates of the share of fake accounts on Twitter vary — and all suffer from a lack of access to company data. But whatever the overall percentage, industry experts say it’s likely much higher for Musk.

About 70% of Musk’s followers on Twitter are spam, fake or inactive, compared to 41% for all other accounts with between 65 and 120 million followers, according to an estimate last month from SparkToro LLC, a software maker of audience research. In the company’s dataset, the average Twitter user has less than 100 followers and less than 10% are fake or spam accounts, according to the study.

Musk “gets so much attention that people may be trying to use him to find targets to scam,” said Kaicheng Yang, a computer scientist and doctoral student at Indiana University who studies bot activity on the Internet. social media and helped create a bot detection tool. called Botometer. “If I’m a scammer, would I look at the average user? Nope.”

Twitter says it aggressively fights fake accounts and spam and suspends and blocks millions of accounts every week. Fake or spam accounts have long been estimated to account for less than 5% of its monetizable daily active usage or users – the number, recently pegged at 229 million, that it touts to advertisers.

Musk questioned that estimate and expressed his suspicion that the true share is much higher. He recently called Twitter’s rules “very bot-friendly.” On Saturday, he drew attention to a tweet suggesting spam and bots were being used for “misinformation and fake news against Elon.” Musk’s one-word response to the tweet, “Interesting,” got nearly 20,000 likes.

Twitter maintained its tally. “We don’t believe this specific estimate can be made externally, given the critical need to use both public and private information (which we cannot share),” Twitter chief executive Parag tweeted. Agrawal last month in response to Musk. remarks about putting the deal on hold due to doubts about the company’s bot estimates. Musk responded by tweeting a poo emoji.

“Anyone who uses Twitter is well aware that the comment threads are full of spam, scams and lots of fake accounts,” Musk said at a mid-May tech conference called All-In Summit.

Marketers said advertisers are aware of the presence of rogue accounts and spam on social media — not just Twitter — and factor it into their strategies and metrics.

Whatever Musk’s intention, bad bots and fake accounts can pose a threat on Twitter, for example by making an issue appear to be trending or influencing behavior, experts say. technology and social media.

“Suddenly something that was deceptively popular becomes really popular,” said Sandy Carielli, principal analyst at Forrester Research. “While I wouldn’t speculate on Musk’s motivation for raising the issue, he’s right, it is an issue.”

Write to Sarah E Needleman at [email protected]

This article was published by The Wall Street Journal, part of the Dow Jones

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