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What are Twitter bots, and why is Elon Musk obsessed with them?

Elon Musk says Twitter deal "on hold"
Elon Musk says Twitter deal "on hold" over spam accounts 04:30

Elon Musk's proposed $44 billion purchase of Twitter appears to be wobbling, with the billionaire raising concerns about the number of inauthentic accounts, or bots, on the social media platform. If you're on Twitter, chances are you've encountered a bot, although you may not know it.

On Tuesday, Musk said his deal to buy Twitter can't move forward unless it provides public proof that less than 5% of its accounts are fake or spam, as the company reported in a May 2 regulatory filing.

Musk has ramped up his battle over bots in recent days, calling on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate Twitter's claims and asking his 93 million followers for feedback on their experience using the platform. 

Bots can be problematic for a number of reasons, affecting users' experience and impacting ad sales, experts say. 

"It's important for Musk to have an accurate number of active, real legitimate users because that is important for advertisers and how to monetize these folks," Christopher Bouzy, founder of Bot Sentinel, a company that tracks bots on Twitter, told CBS MoneyWatch.

Here's what you need to know about bots and why Musk is so focused on them. 

What are Twitter bots? 

Bots are automated accounts that imitates how people use the blogging service. They tweet at other accounts, can retweet user tweets and can follow others, for example. 

"At its heart, a bot is a piece of code that mimics human interaction online," said Tamer Hassan, CEO of Human Security, which specializes in bot detection.

But bots aren't typically on Twitter to engage in authentic dialogue with people. Instead, they're on Twitter to achieve a goal, which can be either beneficial or malicious. 

What do Twitter bots do?

On the beneficial side, there are automated bots that perform a service, like the stock bot @mrstockbot, which people can ask for a stock quote. The bot will respond with the stock price and some other related info (as well as the rather existential question, "am I good bot?")

But malicious bots can cause a range of problems. Notably, some bots spread misinformation, including on key topics such as COVID-19 and election, while others troll and harass people. 

Sometimes the latter bots are triggered by a word that an actual person uses in a tweet, which prompts the bot to send an automated response. Other troll accounts are set up to attack specific people, like bots that targeted Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, according to Bot Sentinel.

Spam accounts are another type of bot, which can try to sell people things or scam them, with Musk recently called cryptocurrency bots the "single most annoying problem on Twitter." Some crypto bots will try to convince people to send cryptocurrency to an online wallet in exchange for a bigger prize, which, of course, doesn't exist. 

"Everything comes down to the incentive," Hassan said. "The first one is always financial, and the second one is stealing information, — the scraping of profile information — and the third is typically influence, and we see that more prominently on social platforms."

How many bots are on Twitter? 

This is the crux of the disagreement between Musk and Twitter, with the company long stating that less than 5% of its accounts are inauthentic. 

Musk has suggested that the share is much higher. On Tuesday, he tweeted that "20% fake/spam accounts, while 4 times what Twitter claims, could be much higher. My offer was based on Twitter's SEC filings being accurate." 

So who's right? That can't be measured reliably from outside the company, said Hassan, although Bouzy said his company estimates that bots account for between 10% and 15% of Twitter's users. 

How do I know if I'm dealing with a bot? 

If you're on Twitter mostly to follow politics or news, you're probably encountering bots because of the incentive to sway people's opinions, Bouzy said. 

"People who are tweeting about cats or origami are probably never going to see inauthentic accounts," he added. 

One way to spot a bot is if an account tweets round the clock or if the replies feel automated. But bots are getting more sophisticated and increasingly mimic human behavior, which can make them hard to identify.

That gets to another problem with bots on social media: The platform's value to actual people is eroded if they lose faith in the service's integrity, Hassan said.

"Trust is one of the most important things on a social platform," he noted.

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