Elon Musk’s obsession with bots will do nothing to stop Twitter spam

Twitter reports that less than 5% of accounts are fake or spammers, commonly referred to as “bots”. Since his Twitter takeover offer was accepted, Elon Musk has repeatedly questioned these estimates, even dismissing Public response from CEO Parag Agrawal.

Later, Musk put the deal on hold and demanded more proof.

So why are people arguing over the percentage of bot accounts on Twitter?

As the creators of Botometer, a widely used bot detection tool, our group at the Indiana University Social Media Observatory has been studying inauthentic accounts and manipulation on social media for over a decade. We brought the concept of the “social bot” to the fore and first estimated its prevalence on Twitter in 2017.

Based on our knowledge and experience, we believe that estimating the percentage of bots on Twitter has become a very difficult task, and debating the accuracy of the estimate may be missing the point. Here’s why.

What, exactly, is a bot?

To measure the prevalence of problematic Twitter accounts, a clear definition of targets is needed. Common terms like “fake accounts”, “spam accounts” and “bots” are used interchangeably but have different meanings. Fake or fake accounts are those that impersonate people. Accounts that mass produce unsolicited promotional content are defined as spammers. Bots, on the other hand, are accounts controlled in part by software; they can post content or perform simple interactions, such as retweeting, automatically.

These types of accounts often overlap. For example, you can create a bot that impersonates a human to automatically post spam. This account is simultaneously a bot, a spammer and a scam. But not every fake account is a bot or a spammer and vice versa. Arriving at an estimate without a clear definition only produces misleading results.

Defining and distinguishing account types can also inform appropriate interventions. Fake and spam accounts degrade the online environment and violate platform policy. Malicious bots are used to spread misinformation, increase popularity, exacerbate conflict through negative and inflammatory content, manipulate opinions, influence elections, conduct financial fraud, and disrupt communication. However, some bots can be harmless or even useful, for example, helping to spread news, providing disaster alerts, and conducting research.

Simply banning all bots is not in the interests of social media users.

To put it simply, researchers use the term “inauthentic accounts” to refer to the collection of fake accounts, spammers, and malicious bots. This is also the definition that Twitter seems to be using. However, it’s unclear what Musk has in mind.

hard to count

Even when consensus is reached on a definition, there are still technical challenges in estimating prevalence.

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