Micro-blogging platform Twitter is clashing with its potential owner, Elon Musk, over the platform’s disclosure of the number of bot accounts it has. The richest man in the world put the Twitter deal on hold, on May 13, till the platform proves that its estimation that only 5% of Twitter accounts are bots is in fact true.
Also read: Musk-Twitter deal: What has happened so far
In a series of tweets on May 16, Twitter chief executive Parag Agrawal tried to explain the platform’s bot situation and controls he has put in place, but Musk wasn’t convinced and replied with a poop emoji and asked, “So how do advertisers know what they’re getting for their money? This is fundamental to the financial health of Twitter.”
While the Agrawal-Musk clash may continue in the days to come, this actually isn’t the first time bots have haunted Twitter and its platform. Here’s the history:
Twitter bots… not the first time
Musk, however, is not the first person to raise questions about Twitter’s bots issue. As Twitter was created as a public, open social network, developers could use its application programming interface (API) to easily build automated accounts that made unique use of the web’s vast knowledge base. But in addition to these fun alterations, Twitter became a breeding ground for bad bots too.
Initially, they were crude users with links to financial scams or pornography. Child pornography, phishing attacks, and other malicious bots flooded the tweetstream. Efforts to keep the bots at bay were thwarted by the people who sold automated accounts in bulk for very cheap prices.
Meanwhile, the platform’s founders were figuring out its purpose, and showcased Twitter’s “power for good”. Backed by global social movements, activists, and whistleblowers, free expression became Twitter’s motto, as was resonated in a blog post by Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter in 2011.
This ‘free speech’ pledge, however, turned out to be controversial and by 2012, it resulted in destructive trolling and hate speech. By then Twitter had built some internal tools to quickly remove illegal content like child pornography, but the platform wasn’t prepared for the proliferation of online harassment.
That year, in the UK, feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez, who campaigned for women’s right, found her Twitter feed flooding with trolls sending her 50 rape threats per hour. Soon after, Australian TV personality Charlotte Dawson was “trolled to death” as she killed herself after she spoke out against online abuse.
By the time the company focused on preparing for its initial public offering (IPO) in 2013, toxicity on the platform intensified almost worldwide. Trolls were organised to spread misogynist messages in India and anti-Semitic ones in Europe.
In Latin America, bots began infecting elections. Hundreds of bots were used during Brazil’s 2014 presidential elections to spread propaganda, which created anxiety among government officials.
Twitter’s bad bots gradually became a global menace. In 2015, militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) began to leverage Twitter to radicalise followers. Even then, abiding by the free-speech values, company executives struggled to respond.
Then CEO, Dick Costolo, frustrated with the company’s meagre efforts in tackling these problems, sent a company-wide memo in February 2015, complaining that he was “ashamed” by how much Twitter “sucked” at dealing with abuse.
In October that year, Costolo resigned from Twitter and was replaced by Jack Dorsey who re-joined as CEO.
Though Dorsey believed in Twitter’s ‘freedom of expression’, the platform continued to be mired in controversy. A July 2016 troll (majority are bots) attack on comedian Leslie Jones with racist and sexist tweets proved to be a ‘decisive moment’ for Twitter’s anti-harassment efforts. It led to the platform revamping its muting and blocking features and introducing an opt-in tool that allows users to filter out what Twitter has verified as “lower-quality content”.
Then the US presidential elections arrived. Reports released a day before the 2016 US-presidential election found that almost 20% of all election-related tweets came from about 400,000 Twitter bots. Over the next year and a half, Twitter has slowly divulged that more than 50,000 Russian-linked bots were active around the time of the election, tweeting messages that were seen hundreds of millions of times. Bots have also influenced political discourses in France, Mexico, and many other countries.
Swiping out the bots
Over the years, Twitter has invested in clearing out spam accounts. In 2018, the company acquired a firm called Smyte, which specialised in spam prevention, safety and security.
Thereafter, it started to remove "spammy and suspicious accounts" in an effort to “sanitize” the platform, which caused its user base to drop by a million in July 2018.
Across the board, Twitter’s most followed celebrities felt a cut. Katy Perry, the most followed person on Twitter, lost at least 1.5 million followers, Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift, lost about 2 million each. Rihanna, Ellen DeGeneres, Lady Gaga, lost about 2 million followers and Oprah Winfrey lost about 1.4 million followers, the Times reported.
Politicians felt the slash too. Barack Obama lost over 2 million followers, while then US President Donald Trump lost 340,000.
Back home in India, Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan's follower count on Twitter dropped by over 4,24,000, while Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan’s followers dropped by over 362,141 and 3,40,884, respectively.
Twitter’s primary account seemed to be among those that took the biggest hits, dropping from 62.85 million to 55.35 million followers in 2018, and reduced the total follower count on the platform by a significant 12%.
Solving the big, bad bot problem of Twitter
Even if the numbers are actually small, bots can have an outsized impact, and a handful can have a major influence in shaping online conversation, according to experts.
“Manipulation has become more sophisticated, with coordinated networks and so-called cyborg accounts controlled by both humans and software,” wrote Filippo Menczer, a researcher from Indiana University’s Observatory on Social Media mentioned in their official blog last year. “These bad actors can flood the network and then delete their content to evade detection,” he added.
Also, a Carnegie Mellon University study analysing the spread of Covid-19 falsehoods in 2020 found that of the top 50 influential re-tweeters, 82% were bots.
But bots also serve a positive role on Twitter’s platform. For instance news services use bot accounts to disseminate breaking news, while governments use them to make announcements etc. Experts, therefore, suggest that bots should be allowed only on authorised accounts that have been vetted in some way, like the platform’s verified system.
Also, time and again, Twitter has reiterated its moves to separate good bots from bad bots. The microblogging site even rolled out a dedicated sticker for good bot accounts last year.
All the above claims, drive home the point that bots are a known problem for the platform. In fact, independent analyst Rob Enderle said that “having Musk make it a sticking point this late in the acquisition process” could “likely be a vehicle to escape the purchase or get a lower price”.