Do Spam Bots Really Comprise Under 5% of Twitter Users? Elon Musk Wants to Know

Since 2013, Twitter has toned down the spread of fake accounts on its platform, claiming that “fake or spam” accounts make up less than 5 percent of its user base, although independent researchers said the number could be three times higher. That difference could now affect the outcome of Elon Musk’s $ 44 billion cash deal after the billionaire tweeted on Friday that the takeover bid was “temporarily on ice” while searching for information on the number of fake Twitter accounts.

While this may be little more than a negotiation tactic by Musk, it’s clear that almost nothing is certain when it comes to how these accounts are defined or avoided, according to current employees and independent social media researchers.

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The social media platform said in a public announcement on May 2 that less than 5 percent of its 229 million daily active users targeting advertising are “fake or spam” based on an internal review of a sample of its accounts. It did not specify. how that figure stood for the automated, parodic and pseudonymous profiles allowed on the platform.

Twitter did not respond to requests for comment.

Researchers estimate that anywhere from 9 percent to 15 percent of millions of Twitter profiles are automated accounts, or bots, based on an early study, from 2017, and recent research from a company that monitors online conversations.

“They have underestimated that figure,” said Dan Brahmy, CEO of Israeli technology company Cyabra, which uses machine learning to identify fake accounts.

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Cyabra estimates the percentage of fake Twitter profiles at 13.7 percent. Questions about the role of bots in spreading misinformation have followed all social media platforms since 2016, when Russia intervened in the US presidential election in an attempt to strengthen Donald Trump’s candidacy and harm his opponent Hillary Clinton.

Meta, which owns competing platforms Facebook and Instagram, also estimates that fake accounts represent about 5 percent of monthly active users on Facebook, according to its latest data from the fourth quarter of 2021. Meta also estimates that about 11 percent are “duplicate” accounts where a single users have more than one account, a practice that is considered acceptable on Twitter.

Twitter’s rules prevent personalization and spam, which means that “fake” accounts are prohibited if the company determines that their purpose is to “deceive or manipulate others” by, for example, participating in scams, coordinating abuse campaigns or artificially inflating engagement.

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Over the years, Twitter has invested in clearing out spam accounts. In 2018, Twitter acquired a company called Smyte, which specializes in spam prevention, security and safety. Twitter removed “spam and suspicious accounts” in an attempt to improve the platform’s health, causing its user base to drop by 1 million in July 2018 and its inventory to fall.

Researcher Filippo Menczer from Indiana University’s Observatory on Social Media said that Twitter has become more aggressive in removing these types of fake accounts, even though the nature of the threat is evolving and more difficult to quantify.

“Manipulation has also become more sophisticated,” with coordinated networks and so-called cyborg accounts controlled by both humans and software, Menczer said, adding that these bad actors can “flood the network and then delete their content to avoid detection.”

Although the numbers are actually small, bots can have an oversized impact, and a handful can have a major impact on shaping online conversations, according to researchers.

A study from Carnegie Mellon University that analyzed the prevalence of covid-19 counterfeits in 2020 found that of the top 50 influential retweeters, 82% were bots.

Inside Twitter, the measurement and detection of fake accounts or spam accounts is a complex problem that is not well defined or understood by many of the company’s own employees, three sources familiar with the matter told Reuters, on condition that they are anonymous.

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Twitter uses different metrics and definitions to measure such accounts, which also depend on the company’s accuracy in detecting content that constitutes spam, said one of these sources. It is also challenged in its ability to accurately estimate the number of fake accounts and spam accounts – and new accounts are always created, the source said.

“Measurement risk and data transparency on Twitter have been abysmal forever,” said another source, blaming disorganized management. “Plausible denial has been the surest way for Twitter leadership.”

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