Bots: What are they and how could they mess up Elon Musk's $44 billion Twitter deal?

·6 min read

Any minute now, the world’s richest man will either buy Twitter, tweet a poop emoji to the social media’s current CEO (yes, that really happened) or bring up the issue of a user-base bot count one more time.

Really, with Tesla CEO Elon Musk, it’s a toss-up as to what will happen next in the latest chapter of what’s been an unusual takeover bid by an unusual man who makes daily headlines with his often – you guessed it – unusual behavior.

Musk’s obsession with Twitter’s bot count – Twitter says it makes up about 5% of its “monetizable daily active users worldwide” while Musk contends it’s more like 20% or higher – is fascinating. I mean, why does he care so much about it and should we?

Yep, the world's richest man flings poop emojis.
Yep, the world's richest man flings poop emojis.

Bot basics

The short answer is yes, nefarious fake accounts on Twitter – and all social media – matter – a lot. They have the power to skew elections, spread dangerous misinformation and exacerbate conflict. But that’s not likely what Musk cares about.

Twitter execs say the company has approximately 229 million monetizable daily active users worldwide. That "monetizable" thing is mainly where Musk takes issue with Twitter's math and why he might ultimately walk away from his $44 billion offer to buy the social network. After all, buying a social network means buying the users and since bots don't click ads or make purchases, they don't count.

But Twitter’s bot problem is nothing new. Musk has been complaining about them for years. A fake account pretending to be him scammed several of his followers out of crypto cash in 2018.  He even used getting rid of the bots as a reason to take over the company tweeting in late April, “If our twitter bid succeeds, we will defeat the spam bots or die trying!”

Hold up: Musk says Twitter deal 'temporarily on hold' over estimates of spam accounts

A bot by any other name

So what exactly is a bot? In simple terms, it's an automated software program that performs specific tasks or actions on behalf of a user. That user could be another person or it could be a company or organization. Bots are most commonly used for two purposes: marketing and spam. They're the kind of accounts many people block as soon as they see them, but not all of them are obvious.

Twitter bots can do all sorts of things, from automatically following people who follow you, to retweeting content, to sending direct messages. They can generate fake likes and fake followers and they can create artificial trends. In short, bots can be used to game the system, which Twitter has long insisted it’s working hard to combat.

One step forward?  Musk’s $44 billion Twitter takeover deal gets board endorsement

Not all bots are bad

Bots can be annoying, but not all of them are bad. For example, some bots help or bots that can help you relax. Some bots can keep you up to date on the latest news and bots can even remind you of important dates and times.

The problem is that while good bots exist, most automated Twitter accounts do little more than spam the timeline with ads, misinformation, or sketchy links that can lead to malware and other cybersecurity threats. That's why it's so important to know how to spot a bot and why you should be careful about interacting with any account that may be one.

Several red flags can help here, but the most common is a bogus profile. That's because bots are often created in bulk and the people behind them don't take the time to fill out all the details. So if you see an account with a default profile photo, no bio and spammy tweets, it's probably a bot.

The dark side of bots

Your average spam bots are frustrating when they paste a million ads into your timeline or direct messages, but aside from making your Twitter experience less enjoyable, they're mostly harmless. However, there are more nefarious uses for bots that have real-world implications. We touched on a few of these issues above. Still, it’s worth mentioning again that the worst of the lot can – and has – influenced elections, spread deadly misinformation and even recruited for extremist causes.

An excellent piece of recent research from scientists at the Indiana University Observatory on Social Media shed some bright light on inauthentic Twitter accounts and their ability to spread fake news. One of the more fascinating findings was that bot activity tends to cluster around specific topics where false information can dramatically swing sentiments, such as cryptocurrencies, politics and health.

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How to spot a bot

Botsight can help determine which of your Twitter followers are probably not human.
Botsight can help determine which of your Twitter followers are probably not human.

I have some good news and some bad news here. First, the bad news: There’s nothing you can do to prevent bots from showing up occasionally in your Twitter browsing. There are too many of them and insufficient safeguards to control their activity, so they’re likely here to stay.

Now for the good news: It’s pretty easy to find where they’re hiding and avoid those areas or at least take extra care when chatting about specific topics on Twitter.

One helpful tool here is BotSight, an iOS and web app from the security company NortonLifeLock. It works for Chrome and iOS and actively checks tweets as you scroll, using various data to calculate how likely the post is from a bot. It performs these actions in real time, so it doesn’t hamper your browsing experience and it’s a great weapon against Twitter spam and scams.

If you want to check an entire topic for bot activity, you can use BotAmp, a slick web app that compares bot activity across Twitter keywords and hashtags. It’s super easy to use and can be eye-opening. Other tools like FollowerAudit and Bot Sentinel can also check specific accounts for suspicious activity.

If you find out a follower is a bot, you can right-click their profile and remove them.
If you find out a follower is a bot, you can right-click their profile and remove them.

Musk’s moves

OK, back to Musk now. There’s much speculation that Musk has cold feet and is using the bot issue as an excuse to get out of the deal. Twitter stock has dropped since his initial cheeky $54.20 offer to around $37.17 as of 1:30 p.m. EDT on Friday. Tesla’s stock dropped too and layoffs are happening there, so many speculate that Musk wants out of the deal or to snag it for less money.

I’m going to grab my popcorn and watch and stay tuned. If Musk backs out of the deal – for whatever reason – there is a $1 billion breakup fee, not to mention more legal fallout for him – the world’s wealthiest – and perhaps quirkiest man.

Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech columnist. Email her at jj@techish.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferJolly. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Elon Musk and Twitter: Why bots could bring down the $44 million deal