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Could Elon Musk Really Banish the Twitterbots?

Assuming he buys Twitter, industry opinion is divided as to whether his ambitious plan can succeed

Norton, the antivirus giant, offers some timely thoughts on Twitterbots. First, not all bots are malicious:

Twitter bots, also known as zombies, are automated Twitter accounts controlled by bot software. While they are programmed to perform tasks that resemble those of everyday Twitter users — such as liking tweets and following other users — their purpose is to tweet and retweet content for specific goals on a large scale.

Twitter bots can be used for helpful purposes, such as broadcasting important content like weather emergencies in real time, sharing informative content en masse, and generating automatic replies via direct messaging.

Emerging Threats, “What’s a Twitter bot and how to spot one” at Norton (June 16, 2020)

But some are malicious:

Twitter bots also can be designed for the malicious purposes of platform intimidation and manipulation — like spreading fake news campaigns, spamming, violating others’ privacy, and sock-puppeting…

As artificial automations, they can pretend to be real people, liking your tweets and content. Or they can act as malicious bots that try to intimidate, bully, persuade, and incite you to believe things that may not be true and act in ways that are fueled by false information.

Emerging Threats, “What’s a Twitter bot and how to spot one” at Norton (June 16, 2020)

The bots are often part of larger network, a botnet, whose co-ordinated activity adds up to a much more powerful presence than a single bot. Sometimes, they are used to spread malware.

How common are they? Their numbers increased during the COVID-19 lockdowns, according to a Carnegie Mellon study.

The Carnegie Mellon study found almost half of the Twitter accounts calling for America to reopen may be bots. The same study looked at more than 200 million tweets since January 2020 that reference the novel coronavirus. It found that of the top 50 retweeters, 41 — 82 percent — were bots.

Emerging Threats,”What’s a Twitter bot and how to spot one” at Norton (June 16, 2020)

Apparently, half of Joe Biden’s followers have also been determined to be bots, along with over 70% of Elon Musk’s. That’s likely part of what’s driving Musk’s skepticism about Twitter’s 5% claim.

Although Norton offers tips to help Twitter users spot bots, one gets the feeling that the better botnets are sophisticated enough to avoid tripping such obvious switches.

At Business Insider, a pair of researchers who developed the bot detection tool Botometer argue that just trying to get rid of the malicious bots misses the point: They prefer the term inauthentic accounts. That’s when it gets tricky. How do we know?:

For example, some fake accounts use AI-generated faces as their profiles. These faces can be indistinguishable from real ones, even to humans. Identifying such accounts is hard and requires new technologies.

Another difficulty is posed by coordinated accounts that appear to be normal individually but act so similarly to each other that they’re almost certainly controlled by a single entity. Yet they’re like needles in the haystack of hundreds of millions of daily tweets.

Finally, inauthentic accounts can evade detection by techniques like swapping handles or automatically posting and deleting large volumes of content.

Kai-Cheng Yang and Filippo Menczer, “Twitter bots are hard to track, and focusing on the amount misses the point. Here’s what matters more, according to 2 researchers.” at Business Insider (May 25, 2022)

And some accounts are hybrids:

Accounts can be hacked, bought, or rented, and some users “donate” their credentials to organizations who post on their behalf. As a result, so-called “cyborg” accounts are controlled by both algorithms and humans. Similarly, spammers sometimes post legitimate content to obscure their activity.

We’ve observed a broad spectrum of behaviors mixing the characteristics of bots and people. Estimating the prevalence of inauthentic accounts requires applying a simplistic binary classification: authentic or inauthentic account. No matter where the line is drawn, mistakes are inevitable. Kai-

Cheng Yang and Filippo Menczer, “Twitter bots are hard to track, and focusing on the amount misses the point. Here’s what matters more, according to 2 researchers.” at Business Insider (May 25, 2022)

As of last Sunday, Elon Musk, who doesn’t even try to stay out of the news long, suggested that the price he’d now offer for Twitter depends on the proportion of bots to customers:

Elon Musk has added to uncertainty over his $44 billion offer for Twitter by saying the price should be cut by the proportion of fake accounts on the platform and calling Twitter’s lack of explanation over its estimates “very suspicious.”

Musk agreed Saturday with conservative commentator Ian Miles Cheong who tweeted: “If 25% of the users are bots then the Twitter acquisition deal should cost 25% less.”

“Absolutely,” Musk replied.

Musk put his deal to buy Twitter for $54.20 a share “on hold” until the platform could prove that only 5% of users are bots.

Ryan Hogg, “Elon Musk suggests cutting Twitter offer by proportion of bots and calls its lack of explanation ‘very suspicious’” at Yahoo News (May 22, 2022)

In short, cutting through the fog of rhetoric on all sides, Musk suspects that Twitter has not been serious about the bots in the past and that their numbers ballooned during COVID. He probably hopes to get Twitter for more like $33 billion than $44 billion. He will likely need sophisticated new software to even start seriously booting bots off the platform. That would be a use for the money he would save… Stay tuned.

You may also wish to read: Can Elon Musk really stop Big Tech from controlling us? We usually don’t realize how far it has already gone in efforts to control our thinking. Andrew McDiarmid talks about how we — never mind Musk — can take control back from Big Tech.

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Could Elon Musk Really Banish the Twitterbots?