Everything you need to know about bots, those fake accounts that annoy Elon Musk

Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has created a tsunami effect. Then a couple of weeks later, nothing. Calm after the storm. Now the richest man in the world is even threatening not to make a $44 billion purchase. His excuse? Excessive presence of fake accounts, “bots” in the social network. “20% of fake accounts, four times what Twitter claims, could be much higher,” the Tesla boss said on his Twitter account on Tuesday. Before the warning: “My suggestion was based on the accuracy of Twitter’s statements.”

But why are fake accounts creating such a gap between the social network and Elon Musk? 20 minutes tries to answer it with five questions.

Okay, what is a bot?

Unlike our idea of ​​a robot destroying humanity, a bot is simply a fake account that is rampaging across social media and, more broadly, the internet. On Twitter, for example, you can chat with a certain “Sandrine Dupont”. Your interlocutor displays a completely realistic avatar, and its writing leaves no doubt that this account is occupied by a real person. Except that Sandrine Dupont doesn’t exist and the bot is actually controlled by either another person or artificial intelligence. “Spam is not just “binary” (human/non-human). The most advanced spam campaigns use a combination of coordinated human action and automation,” explains Parag Agravall, director of Twitter, in a long thread posted to his account.

But why create a fake account? Companies, for example, can use this system to influence consumers. But they are certainly not the only ones who set up such a game, soon bots were used to manipulate citizens as well, including by widely inflating current topics on the network. For example, it is not uncommon to see fake accounts relaying the words of a candidate during an election. Target ? Make your words more audible and thus give them more meaning.

Okay, but are bots really that dangerous?

By definition, bots are dangerous when they influence or even manipulate Internet users. “They compromise real accounts and then use them to promote their campaign,” says Parag Agravall, who also thinks these fake accounts remain “difficult” and “difficult to detect.” Indeed, bots learn from their mistakes and constantly change to withstand future bans. “The adversaries, their goals and their tactics are constantly changing – often in response to our work! You can’t create a set of spam detection rules today and expect them to work tomorrow,” says Parag Agravall.

But is it possible to regulate them, these bots?

It’s written in black and white in the rules and policies of Twitter “You may not use the Twitter Services in any way that artificially enhances or suppresses information, or engage in behavior that manipulates or disrupts the user experience.” Among these prohibitions, we find “spam for commercial purposes” as well as “incredible activities that attempt to make accounts or content more popular or active than they really are.”

Therefore, there is indeed a regulation on Twitter that will go from requesting an account to be permanently suspended. Except that, as we mentioned earlier, fake accounts are much more stealthy than simple regulation and still manage to slip through the cracks. “We block over half a million spam accounts every day, usually before you see them on Twitter. We also block millions of accounts every week that we suspect are spam – if they can’t pass human checks (captcha, phone verification…),” the Twitter CEO wanted to assure on Tuesday.

However, the limit of regulation occurs when what appeared to be a fake account was not. According to Parag Agrava, “a challenging task”. Who adds: “Some of the spam accounts that are actually the most dangerous and cause the most harm to our users may seem completely legitimate at first glance. »

Why can’t we count them?

Ever since Elon Musk pulled out of his takeover, the presence of bots on the social network seems to have become impossible to quantify. According to Twitter, the number of fake accounts does not exceed 5%, but the Tesla boss is convinced that this figure is rising to 20%. Why such a discrepancy? First, because many fake accounts are still invisible. But not only. The two camps do not appear to have chosen the same sample to measure the number of bots on Twitter.

“Our estimate is based on multiple (repeated) reviews of thousands of accounts by people who are selected randomly and consistently over time. […]. We do this every quarter, and we have been doing this for many years, ”explains the Twitter boss. For his part, Elon Musk announced a completely different methodology, which drew derision from budding statisticians. “My team will take a random sample of 100 followers from a social media account on Twitter,” he said on Twitter on May 14.

To which University of Washington professor Carl T. Bergstrom responded, saying on CNBC: “There is no reason to believe that the followers of the official Twitter account constitute a representative sample of accounts on the platform. It may be that bots are less likely to follow this account to avoid detection. Maybe they’re more likely to follow along to appear legit. Who knows ? But I just can’t imagine Musk doing anything other than trolling us with this idiotic sampling scheme.”

Why does this bother Elon Musk?

Typically, a fake account is an account that cannot be targeted by ads. Except that Twitter mostly generates ad revenue, which is mostly paid for by advertisers. But they want to communicate with consumers and potential buyers, not with robots.

To make matters worse for Twitter, advertisers pay based on the number of users, and this figure can thus be inflated by the number of bots. If their share turns out to be really close to 20%, and not to 5%, advertisers run the risk of quietly escaping and inflicting large economic losses on the social network … Enough to cool off Elon Musk.