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What Are Spam Bots and Why They’re an Issue in Elon Musk’s Twitter Deal


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On Friday, the tech billionaire Elon Musk announced that he was terminating a $44 billion deal to buy Twitter. The reason, he said, was an ongoing disagreement over the number of spam bot accounts on the platform. Now, the issue of what constitutes a spam bot account, and how many currently exist on Twitter, is likely to be at the heart of the legal battles between Mr. Musk and Twitter over the fraught deal.

While sometimes called “bots” or “spam” or “fake accounts,” all refer to inauthentic accounts that imitate how people use Twitter. Some spam accounts are automated, but others are operated by people, making it complicated to detect them.

Bots can tweet at people, share tweets, follow and be followed by other people, among other things.

Mr. Musk has been voicing concern over spam bots on Twitter for years. In 2020, he appeared at an event for Twitter employees, and encouraged the company to do more to prevent and remove spam bots.

Since announcing his intention to buy Twitter in April, Mr. Musk has repeatedly tweeted about spam bots on the platform. In May, when Parag Agrawal, Twitter’s chief executive, tweeted about how the company detects and fights spam bots, Mr. Musk responded with a poop emoji.

In a six-paragraph letter on June 6, Mr. Musk’s lawyers demanded more information from Twitter, stating that the company was “refusing Mr. Musk’s data requests” to disclose the number of fake accounts on its platform. That amounted to a “clear material breach” of the deal, the lawyers continued, saying it gave Mr. Musk the right to break off the agreement. The next day, Twitter agreed to allow Mr. Musk direct access to its “fire hose,” the daily stream of millions of tweets that flow through the company’s network.

Since it went public in 2013, Twitter has estimated that roughly 5 percent of its accounts are spam bots. On Thursday, the company told reporters that it removes about one million spam bot accounts each day, and locks millions more per week until the people behind the accounts can pass anti-spam tests.

The company does, however, allow spam bot accounts, which it prefers to call automated bots, that perform a service. Twitter encourages many of these accounts to label themselves as bots for transparency. The company argues that many of those accounts perform a useful service.

Twitter defines good spam bots as automated accounts that “help people find useful, entertaining and relevant information.” For example, @mrstockbot gives people automated responses when they ask for a stock quote, and @earthquakebot tweets about any earthquake with a magnitude of 5.0 or higher worldwide as they occur.

But other spam bots are used by governments, corporations or bad actors for a number of nefarious purposes. During the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, Russia used spam bot accounts to impersonate Americans and try to sow divisions among U.S. voters.

Spam bots that engage in scams are frequently found on Twitter trying to persuade people to send cryptocurrency, or digital currency, to online wallets for prizes that don’t exist. Sometimes spam bots are also used to attack celebrities or politicians and to create a hostile environment for them online.

Kate Conger contributed reporting.


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