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Elon Musk’s obsession with bots won’t do anything to stop Twitter spam

Twitter reports that less than 5% of accounts are fake or spammers, commonly referred to as ‘bots’. Since his offer to buy Twitter was accepted, Elon Musk has repeatedly questioned and even rejected these estimates Public Response of Chief Executive Officer Parag Agrawal

later, Musk put the deal on hold and demanded more evidence

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

If the makers of botometera widely used bone detection tool, our group at 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 foreground and first estimated their 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 would miss the point. Here’s why.

What exactly is a bot?

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

These types of accounts often overlap. For example, you can create a bot that pretends to be a human to automatically post spam. Such an account is a bot, a spammer and a fake at the same time. But not every fake account is a bot or a spammer, and vice versa. Making an estimate without a clear definition will only produce misleading results.

Defining and distinguishing account types can also lead to appropriate interventions. Fake and spam accounts degrade and violate the online environment platform policy† Malicious bots are used to spreading misinformationblow up popularityaggravate conflicts through negative and incendiary contentmanipulate opinionsinfluence electionscommit financial fraud and disrupt communication† However, some bots can be harmless or even usablefor example, by helping to spread news, deliver disaster warnings and conducting research

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

For simplicity, researchers use the term “inauthentic accounts” to refer to the collection of fake accounts, spammers, and malicious bots. This is also the definition Twitter seems to use. However, it is unclear what Musk has in mind.

hard to count

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

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