The Media Today

Musk’s Twitter bid, and the ‘bot’ complication

May 19, 2022
22 March 2022, Brandenburg, Gr'nheide: Elon Musk, Tesla CEO, attends the opening of the Tesla factory Berlin Brandenburg. The first European factory in Gr'nheide, designed for 500,000 vehicles per year, is an important pillar of Tesla's future strategy. Photo by: Patrick Pleul/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Elon Musk’s bid to acquire Twitter for $44 billion is only a month old, but it has already had more twists and turns than any Coney Island roller coaster. After Musk filed notice of his offer with the Securities and Exchange Commission on April 13, Twitter’s board of directors implemented a “poison pill” defense, which would have flooded the market with cheaper stock if Musk went ahead with his bid. Only a few days later, Twitter accepted his offer, which valued company stock well above its recent trading price. This triggered a wave of speculation about what Musk planned to do with the service; among other things, he said that he would make the service’s recommendation algorithm public, and stated last week, after much speculation on the matter, that he would reverse the permanent ban on Donald Trump’s Twitter account. (That news prompted quick support from Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s former CEO, who had previously defended the decision to ban Trump.)

Then, late last week (on Friday the 13th, no less), Musk declared that his offer for Twitter was “on hold” until he could verify the company’s recent statement that spambots and other fake accounts make up less than 5 percent of Twitter’s total user base. At a technology conference in Miami on Monday, Musk expanded on this concern, saying he believes that the true number of spam or fake accounts could be 20 percent of Twitter’s total user base or higher, although he didn’t provide any evidence to support his estimate. He also said a deal for Twitter at a lower price “wouldn’t be out of the question.” (Twitter’s share price is currently in the $36 range, more than 30 percent below where it was when Musk filed his offer.) The company responded that it plans to “enforce the merger agreement.”

Some observers believe Musk’s concern about the percentage of fake accounts is a ruse to either back out of the takeover deal or at least negotiate a lower price. Matt Levine, an opinion columnist for Bloomberg, wrote recently that he doesn’t believe Musk really cares about spambots. “I think it is important to be clear here that Musk is lying,” Levine wrote. “He has produced no evidence at all that Twitter’s estimates are wrong, and certainly not that they are materially wrong or made in bad faith.” The only way Musk could get out of the deal at this juncture, added Levine, would be to prove that such a mistake would have a “material adverse effect” on the business—an outcome Levine called “vanishingly unlikely.” (Musk has questioned whether advertisers are getting what they paid for, which he said was “fundamental to the financial health of Twitter.”)

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In an apparent response to Musk’s bot concerns, Parag Agrawal, Twitter’s CEO, posted a Twitter thread. “Let’s talk about spam,” he began. “And let’s do so with the benefit of data, facts, and context.” Agrawal noted that spam “isn’t just ‘binary’ (human / not human)”; some accounts, known as cyborgs, use a combination of human beings and fully automated or “bot” accounts, and are “sophisticated and hard to catch,” according to Agrawal. “Many accounts which look fake superficially are actually real people. And some of the spam accounts which are actually the most dangerous [can] look totally legitimate.” Agrawal added that the estimate of fake accounts is based on random human reviews. Musk responded with a tweet consisting only of a poop emoji.

How big is Twitter’s bot population, then? That’s hard to say. Newsweek wrote that close to 50 percent of Joe Biden’s followers appear to be fake, basing its report on an assessment by a spam-monitoring company called SparkToro. The same company reportedly found that more than 70 percent of Elon Musk’s followers appear to be fake, based on factors such as their user photos and activity levels. Agrawal, however, said in his thread about fake accounts that only Twitter can be sure who is fake and who isn’t, because only it has access to private data about the account, such as IP address, phone number, and location. “FirstnameBunchOfNumbers with no profile pic and odd tweets might seem like a bot or spam to you,” said Agrawal, “but behind the scenes we often see multiple indicators that it’s a real person.”

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A further complication: terms such as “spam,” “bot,” and “inauthentic” accounts (as Facebook likes to call them) are often used interchangeably or otherwise inaccurately. Since the 2016 election, there has been a lot of commentary about the effect that “Russian bots” allegedly had on the outcome, but the term “bot” is typically used to mean an automated account that tweets without human intervention. Though some of the Russian accounts referred to may have used fake identities and engaged in inauthentic behavior, many were run by human beings, and were likely part of organized “troll farms” such as the Internet Research Agency, which Adrian Chen detailed for the New York Times in 2015.

The Internet Research Agency and its ilk often use automated accounts to retweet or repost messages they are trying to distribute. But those are also the easiest to find, since their behavior is obviously fake. Both Twitter and Facebook take down millions of these kinds of accounts every month. What is harder, as Twitter’s CEO suggested in his tweet thread, is determining which accounts are fake or automated, and which are run by human beings who just happen to act like spammers or bots—because they are obsessed with a certain political viewpoint, or because they are pretending to be for other reasons, such as generating revenue. Whatever his motive for raising the issue, the reality is that Musk’s inquiry doesn’t have a simple answer.

Here’s more on Twitter and bots:

  • Bot people: A recent episode of the Reply All podcast looked at rumors that Christina Pushaw—press secretary for Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida—has an army of Twitter bots at her disposal that she uses to target people online. In the end, the podcast came to the conclusion that many of the most vocal accounts that retweet her criticism or attack her opponents are run by human beings, some of whom just want to be part of a larger movement. The episode mentions Botometer, a machine-learning algorithm used to assess account authenticity; however, it notes, Botometer “doesn’t actually tell you outright if an account is a bot or not. Instead, it just gives you a probability.” 
  • Depp fans: The defamation trial involving actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, who wrote in a 2018 Washington Post op-ed that she had been subjected to domestic abuse, has become a hotbed of bot-like activity; each side of the case has accused the other of employing “fake fan armies” to attack the opposing party online. But are the accounts that tweet the most about the case actually bots? “The reality is far more disturbing,” writes Tatiana Siegel for Rolling Stone; the accounts appear to be mostly real people, some of whom post extremely offensive commentary. Dan Brahmy, the CEO of Cyabra, a startup that tracks bot activity, told Rolling Stone that “the majority of the profiles that are on Johnny Depp’s side and support him are real people, almost 95 percent of them.”
  • Bad algorithms: In a recent tweet, Musk suggested that Twitter users should switch their feeds to a chronological view, rather than one that shows tweets chosen by the company’s algorithms. “I’m not suggesting malice in the algorithm, but rather that it’s trying to guess what you might want to read and, in doing so, inadvertently manipulate/amplify your viewpoints without you realizing this is happening,” Musk said. He also recently posted that he has switched his allegiance to the Republican Party. “In the past I voted Democrat, because they were (mostly) the kindness party,” he wrote. “But they have become the party of division & hate.” Musk suggested he would soon be the victim of a “dirty tricks campaign” as a result of his political preferences.
  • Just business: Despite the rumors and confusion that have been flying around Musk’s Twitter deal over the past few weeks, Bloomberg reports that, behind the scenes, “it’s business as usual, as advisers on both sides plug away at the day-to-day work of closing a megadeal.” On Tuesday, a document was filed with securities regulators detailing how the offer came together, which Bloomberg said was “the result of weeks of coordinated work by both Musk and Twitter’s teams, according to people familiar with the matter.” Musk reportedly signed off on the final version—including the deal price of $54.20 for each share of Twitter’s stock—before the document was filed, according to Bloomberg.


Other notable stories:

  • Only three weeks after it was announced, the Department of Homeland Security’s nascent Disinformation Governance Board has been “paused,” according to DHS employees who spoke to the Washington Post. The paper said the decision came at the end of a “back-and-forth week of decisions that changed during the course of reporting of this story.” On Monday, the DHS decided to shut down the board, which had been attacked by right-wing commentators in what seemed to be a coordinated effort. Nina Jankowicz, the executive director, wrote a letter of resignation. On Tuesday, it appeared the board might not shut down. Yesterday, it was put on pause, and Jankowicz officially resigned.
  • Residents of Illinois are getting checks worth $397 each from Meta, the parent company of Facebook, as part of a settlement brought about by a class action lawsuit over facial recognition, NBC News reported. The lawsuit alleged that the company violated the rights of Illinois residents by collecting and storing digital scans of their faces. This is a breach of the state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act, a 2008 law that “allows consumers in the state to sue companies for privacy violations involving fingerprints, retina scans, facial geometry and similar data,” according to NBC.
  • Alex Goldman and Emmanuel Dzotsi, cohosts of the Reply All podcast, will be leaving the show next month, according to an internal memo obtained by The Verge. Executives at Gimlet, the company that produces the podcast, emailed staffers Wednesday morning, saying, “Alex and Emmanuel have both made the decision to explore opportunities outside of Gimlet, and we’ll have more info to share on the future of Reply All soon.” Dzotsi confirmed to The Verge that he and Goldman are leaving the show.
  • Chris Wallace will host a Sunday-night interview show for CNN starting this fall, the Associated Press reports. The show, which will be called “Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace,” was the program Wallace was originally slated for on CNN+, the streaming service that was launched earlier this year and then quickly shut down by the network’s new owners, Warner Bros. Discovery.
  • The Chinese government routinely deletes posts, suspends accounts, blocks keywords, and even arrests those who post forbidden content on social media. But now it is trying a new tactic, according to the New York Times: displaying the locations of those who post on social media. “Authorities say the location tags, which are displayed automatically, will help unearth overseas disinformation campaigns intended to destabilize China,” the Times reports. “In practice, they have offered new fuel for pitched online battles that increasingly link Chinese citizens’ locations with their national loyalty.”
  • In Muck Rack’s 2022 State of Journalism report, the site says that 77 percent of journalists value Twitter more than they do any other social media platform, and almost 40 percent of those surveyed said they plan on spending more time on Twitter this year than they did last year. Journalists ranked Twitter as one of their top destinations for finding news, second only to online newspapers and magazines.
  • Russia said it is closing the Moscow bureau of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Canada’s publicly funded news network, and will strip the CBC’s journalists of their visas and accreditation, the broadcaster reported. The network said the move appeared to be in retaliation for Canada banning RT, the Russian state TV broadcaster. Canada’s telecommunications regulator removed RT from its list of authorized distributors in March.
  • Recurrent Ventures, which owns magazines including Popular Science and Outdoor Life, said Wednesday it has closed a $300 million round of new financing. The company said it has raised a total of $400 million since it was created in 2018 by Andrew Perlman and Matt Sechrest, former partners in a private equity fund. In addition to Popular Science and Outdoor Life, the company owns the home improvement site, the military magazine Task & Purpose, and the outdoor magazine Field & Stream.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.