Twitter Bots Are Promising Cheap Guns to Anyone Using the N-Word
When Elon Musk acquired Twitter, he made it clear that eradicating spam bots was a top priority. But his strategies on that front have produced, at best, mixed results. Moreover, in recent months, some users have been plagued by a type of spam that directly violates Twitter policy: automated replies from accounts offering guns for sale.
The bots themselves — which are constantly reported and suspended, only for new bots to take their place — appear to be activated by specific keywords. Any mention of firearms may summon them, but cursing and other strong language can too. When author Jim Wright offered somewhat profane advice to Michiganders during an ice storm, for example, a bot answered, “yooo i got cheap, clean poles 4 sale, click the link in my bio.” In rap lyrics, “pole” refers to a gun; other common euphemisms in these tweets are “heaters,” “straps,” and the water gun emoji. Twitter’s guidelines explicitly prohibit “the promotion of weapons and weapon accessories globally.”
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Man, I was just saying to myself I need some cheap clean pole.
Way to read the room. pic.twitter.com/KyZiF91kCr
— Stonekettle (@Stonekettle) February 22, 2023
More unusually, some of these bots are only responsive to tweets that contain the n-word, indicating that they seek out potential buyers through a crude form of racial profiling. The context in which the word is used doesn’t matter (in fact, it’s often a casual comment), and the problem has gotten so pronounced on Twitter that it has turned into a meme among Black users bombarded by such messages. One person complained that they see the bots more than their own family — only to be hit by another bot reply. Elsewhere, people will jokingly reply to each other’s tweets as if they are the gun-shilling bots.
The link the bots are pushing directs to a channel on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, which hosts a bustling underground market for drugs and firearms. This particular channel has an undescriptive name — but hundreds of subscribers.
While some have speculated that the Twitter bots were created by law enforcement with the aim of entrapping civilians, particularly Black people, into illegal weapons purchases (Lindsay Nichols, policy director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, also mentions to Rolling Stone the possibility of an undercover “sting”), there’s a better than decent chance that the Telegram user is simply scamming anyone tempted by their promise of such a transaction.
Dr. Jen Golbeck, a professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies, tells Rolling Stone that the way the bots operate “is not random at all.” She adds that they’re “clearly programmed to respond to something, probably variations on the n-word in these cases,” although “they could certainly have a set of rules so there are different words that each account looks for.” She doubts that the bots are drawn to specific profiles, as some of the accounts targeted have thousands of followers, and others very few.
And though she says the idea that feds are behind this trend is “not the worst theory,” it doesn’t ring true to Golbeck. “I’ve talked to plenty of FBI guys about this before,” she says, “and Twitter bots seem beyond their normal set of skills. Not that there aren’t people in law enforcement who could do it, but it’s more techy than normal — entrapment at scale!”
At the same time, says Dr. Liz Rodwell, an assistant professor of digital media information and logistics technology at the University of Houston, the pesky gun-peddling accounts on Twitter are themselves fairly basic. “It’s certainly easy to make bots like this — they’re not particularly sophisticated,” she tells Rolling Stone. “The mystery is definitely who’s behind them.” There are several possible explanations for the bot scheme, she says, but the “most banal” would be that it’s “like any other kind of phishing and is about getting someone to give out their personal or financial information.”
And Dr. Kathleen Carley, a professor with the Institute for Software Research at Carnegie Mellon University, has yet another plausible answer: “This looks like a coordinated attempt at provoking harm,” she says. “There may be multiple motivations: to sow dissension, to increase polarization, to encourage racial prejudice. All of these are achieved by these messages.”
When Rolling Stone joined the Telegram channel the Twitter bots all direct to, it contained just one message promising a sale at the end of that week. On Friday, the account owner began posting photos of handguns — mostly Glock semi-automatic pistols — advertised at prices as low as $100. They also shared partially redacted images of U.S. Postal Service delivery documents as confirmations of past gun deliveries to states including New Jersey, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, and Maryland.
The Telegram user claims that they live in Norfolk, Virginia, and own a gun shop. Their sales pitch notes that all transactions occur anonymously, without the need for a Federal Firearms License or the buyer’s identification. There are certain loopholes that allow for unlicensed dealers to sell guns without conducting a background check on customers, yet this offer suggests “a blatant violation of the law,” according to Nichols.
Nichols points out that current regulations require “someone who is engaged in the business of dealing in firearms to obtain a license, maintain records of sales, and conduct background checks on gun purchasers,” and the interstate sale of handguns is prohibited. Although not every gun seller needs a license under federal law, she says, this person appears to be “conducting gun sales frequently enough to be subject to the federal licensing requirement.”
“Even if they aren’t subject to that federal licensing requirement, since they are located in Virginia, they are subject to that state’s law requiring unlicensed sellers to conduct background checks through licensed gun dealers,” Nichols says.
As further proof of legitimacy, the Telegram user also posted an image of a website for “Bido’s Gun Shop,” their supposed store in Norfolk. But it’s an obvious copy of the website for a real business in the area, Bob’s Gun Shop, with the name and contact information changed. There is no Bido’s Gun Shop.
Steve Dowdy, owner of Bob’s Gun Shop, was already aware of the individual who lifted his store’s web design when contacted by Rolling Stone. “I don’t know who it is, I do know of the website,” he says. “We have made every effort that we can think of to have him shut down. Even had our web company contact their domain registry. He’s trying to get people to enter their credit card info.”
Dowdy also dismisses the Telegram user’s claims of buying guns in bulk, then reselling and shipping them around the country. “It’s a totally fake business, they don’t exist except on the internet,” he says. “Total phishing scam.”
Nichols sees the Telegram channel, whatever its true purpose, as a demonstration of “how the loophole in federal law that allows unlicensed sellers to sell guns without conducting background checks emboldens bad actors.” Indeed, even as a phishing scheme, the business relies on buyers believing that they can surreptitiously purchase weapons over state lines on the internet — without getting caught. Nichols says the phenomenon “highlights the need for a clear line for identifying when a gun seller is required to get a license and conduct background checks.”
If nothing else, the Telegram user is certainly keeping up the pretense of a robust retail operation. “Successful day!” they posted on the channel Friday afternoon, to several emoji reactions, potentially from marks who paid up and are now expecting pistols in the mail. Meanwhile, the average Twitter user is left to wonder why bots attempt to sell them guns whenever they post about the horrific toll of mass shootings, swear in frustration, or drop the n-word. One positive thing you can say about such a scam: It’s so relentlessly annoying that many recognize it’s bullshit right away.
"wassup gang tap tha link in my bio if you need cheap n clean glokks. 302" pic.twitter.com/w8OMgT7CnU
— Su (@SHOTGUNTlMMY) February 24, 2023
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