May 18, 2022 - Technology

Elon vs. the Twitter bots

Illustration of robot profile pictures stacked in a pile
Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Twitter bots are a big problem for Elon Musk, or so he claims — so big that he says he'll blow up his deal to acquire the social media platform if the company doesn't agree with his diagnosis.

Yes, but: Whether Musk really means it or he's just got buyer's remorse, his bot-phobia is a head-scratcher for many Twitter veterans, who see bots as a big part of what makes the platform useful and fun.

The big picture: Twitter bots are programs that post to Twitter based on coded instructions (written by humans). There are:

  • utility bots that organizations use to autopost news and blog items;
  • creative bots made by software artists or fans of poets;
  • and spam bots that swamp discussion threads with automated responses or come-ons for get-rich-quick schemes.

Here are four things to know about Twitter bots.

1. Bots aren't new. "Bots are hot. In online environments, they are both popular and pestiferous, the cause of constant comment and debate... They are proliferating. They are increasingly complex. They cause as many problems as they solve. They will not go away."

  • Andrew Leonard wrote that in Wired in 1996, by which time bots had already been in wide use on internet services for years.

2. Many bots are good. Bots have been enriching my Twitter experience for over a decade, adding levity and serendipity to an otherwise too-often-bleak feed. Bots provide me with everything from random quotes from "Moby Dick" or the Mountain Goats to mashups of Brian Eno's maxims and emo lyrics.

  • I wouldn't see these posts if I let Twitter's algorithm choose what to show me. That's one of many reasons why I view Twitter in "Latest Tweets" mode, where the service shows me everything posted by those I follow. Musk shares this preference.

3. Some bots are truly evil. They harass people or promote fraud. But eliminating them is not a simple problem.

  • As Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal says, "The most advanced spam campaigns use combinations of coordinated humans + automation. They also compromise real accounts, and then use them to advance their campaign."
  • Agrawal says the company suspends more than half a million spam accounts daily, "usually before any of you even see them on Twitter."

4. No one knows for sure what it is about bots that bugs Musk. One good guess is that crypto scammers have swamped his replies with automated come-ons because they view his 90-million-strong following as full of easy marks.

  • By one estimate, about half of Musk's followers are fake accounts. That means his experience of Twitter is very different from yours and mine.
  • Bots have sometimes been good to Musk, too. Researchers have found that while Musk was fighting an epic battle with Tesla short-sellers over the past decade, armies of bots came to the company's rescue — defending it on Twitter over the years in ways that, you'd think, would have endeared them to the billionaire.

Between the lines: Musk is a big believer in robots, too.

  • Tesla's factories depend on advanced robotics, and he has said that the company's project of building humanoid robots has "the potential to be more significant than the vehicle business, over time."
  • Musk has also famously warned that out-of-control artificial intelligence software could wreck human civilization.
  • Maybe he just has a bias towards hardware over software.

The bottom line: Many smart observers believe Musk's bot fight is simply an excuse for him to blow up his Twitter deal in the middle of a stock market rout that has made the original terms a lot less attractive to him.

Our thought bubble: Bots are simple — it's people that are complex.

  • In Twitter's great bot wars, one of the most challenging problems is that, increasingly, human-run accounts are mistaken for bots because they're acting like automatons — mindlessly reposting/retweeting lies they agree with, or dog-piling on people they disagree with.
  • "Many accounts which look fake superficially – are actually real people," Agrawal says.
  • That's a big reason why even the best "bot detectors" make mistakes. One popular bot spotting program rates Musk's own account with an 80% probability of being a bot.
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