‘Bots are one of this decade’s most important cyber threats’.


New Delhi: The concern over a large number of bots on Twitter which forced billionaire Elon Musk to put his multi-billion-dollar Twitter deal on hold, has not gone unnoticed in India. Musk last week expressed a possibility that Twitter has hidden the original number of bots present on its platform, thus presenting an “untrue” picture about the social media platform.
Musk, announcing the temporary hold of his Twitter deal through the micro-blogging site, said, “Twitter deal temporarily on hold pending details supporting calculation that spam/fake accounts do indeed represent less than 5% of users.”
Musk had further said that his deal to buy Twitter for $44 billion was based on Twitter’s filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the United States, through which it said that the platform has fewer than 5% bots or fake accounts, but it could be much higher.
Bots are automated accounts that impersonate or imitate how people use Twitter. Bots are capable of following accounts, tweeting, liking as well as retweeting other accounts, therefore increasing the engagement rate of any targeted account.
Speaking to The Sunday Guardian about the threat bots can have on social media, Filippo Menczer, Professor of Informatics and Computer Science and Director, Observatory on Social Media, Indiana University, United States, elaborated on the dangers posed by them. “Some bots may impersonate humans and be used to manipulate people by creating the false appearance of support or opposition to a person or idea. They can spread and amplify disinformation and hate. This can attack victims, mislead people, and suppress real speech by humans,” he said.
Bot Sentinal, a community funded web-based project, in its report has highlighted that at present there are more than 4 lakh disruptive accounts on Twitter while over 2,25,000 problematic accounts that acts as bots are present on Twitter platform. Out of these, more than 58% of the “problematic” accounts presumed to be bots, are active, while 67% of such “disruptive” accounts are still active on the Twitter platform.
Italian cybersecurity expert and data analyst, Andrea Stroppa, while replying to Elon Musk, said that he agrees with Musk and that Twitter has indeed downplayed the number of bots that are present in their platform. Stroppa, who has conducted multiple researches on social media and bots over the last nine years, shared a series of tweets with his research papers where he has highlighted that at present, Twitter has an active 9% of its total users as bot accounts in its platform.
“Since mid-2021, the number of bots has returned to suspicious growth. In these analyses, I realized that these new bots that appeared between mid-2021 and today are not that sophisticated. Some of these bots have very recognizable characteristics and patterns. According to my latest data, the number of bots on Twitter should be around 9%. After studying bots for many years and collaborating with top reverse engineers and data analysts, I started to think that social media companies have no interest in actually fighting bots,” Stroppa wrote on his Twitter. He further added, “Elon Musk did well to point out this problem. And I’m sure independent researchers are ready to help him do a more thorough audit.”
New York based cyber security firm’s Co-founder Tameer Hassan, while speaking to The Sunday Guardian about bots and what potential bots have, said, “Bots have become increasingly sophisticated and are one of this decade’s most important cyber threats. They are used in over three quarters of security and fraud incidents that happen online, not just for manipulating popularity and sentiment, but also for stealing sensitive data, breaking into our own online accounts, purchasing limited goods and resources, fraudulent financial transactions, and much more. If you can look like a million humans online, there’s a lot that can be done.” Hassan refused to comment on the estimated number of Bot accounts present on Twitter.
Advertisers and marketing agencies have also raised concerns about the presence of the number of bots on Twitter, something which even Elon Musk pointed out. “So how do advertisers know what they’re getting for their money? This is fundamental to the financial health of Twitter.”
Menczer also cited that Twitter’s estimate of bot accounts could be imperfect and unless Twitter allows external agencies to see their data, the real picture will never be out. “Twitter does estimate and communicate to advertisers and shareholders the prevalence of certain kinds of bots, but their estimates are likely imperfect. External researchers such as our Observatory on social media can spot cases in which platforms miss certain kinds of abuse, but cannot assess how accurate their methods and reports are in general. We do not have access to the same kind of internal data,” Menczer told this newspaper.
All political parties in India have also been using Twitter aggressively to put forth their views to the public, but the issue of the presence of large number of bots that are often used to troll one or the other political party or political individuals has been a cause of concern for some time now, especially with the ruling party, the BJP.
A BJP spokesperson told The Sunday Guardian that the matter has not escaped their eyes. “We have seen many instances where bots are being used to spread hate and anti-national forces are using the Titter platform to amplify their hate. Elon Musk has rightly pointed out that Twitter has a greater number of bots than is being projected by them, we encounter them on a regular basis. This is not a good sign.”
Even the security agencies of India have been raising red flags over use of Twitter by foreign agencies to spread hate against the country and something that has been reported to Twitter on multiple occasions by the agencies in India. An official from an Indian security agency told this newspaper that they have seen how on multiple occasions, the Twitter platform is being used to amplify hate against India and spread disturbance in the country, something that goes unchecked by Twitter. “There are hundreds and thousands of bots that are brought in to tweet against India on multiple occasions. We have seen it during the farmers’ protest, we have seen during the organised Kashmir protest. These are all used and unleashed on Twitter from our enemy nations from across the border and Twitter, in most of the cases, does nothing about it,” an official from a security establishment said.