Why is Elon Musk's Twitter struggling with bots?

Musk promised to rid the platform of spam bots, but it’s not going very well.

When Elon Musk launched his $44 billion bid to take over Twitter just over a year ago, he was clear about the reasons behind his hostile takeover. One of his primary concerns was the chilling effect he felt Twitter management was having on free speech – by which he seems to have meant right-wing voices. But another was bots.

In April 2022, he promised that “if our Twitter bid succeeds, we will defeat the spam bots or die trying!” alongside a promise to “authenticate all real humans.” The preponderance of bots was even the excuse he gave for trying to pull out of the deal in the summer of 2022. He claimed that Twitter had misrepresented the proportion of its userbase that were bots rather than real people, and therefore he shouldn’t have to go through with the deal.

The gambit didn’t work, and Musk has now owned Twitter for eight months. So how’s the bot problem going?

More bots, more problems

Not well, based on social media chatter. Many users have taken to Twitter to complain that they’re being overrun with bots in their DMs, with common messages including:

Job offers with huge salaries

Requests to chat from heartbroken and unusually attractive women

The chance to trade stocks on WhatsApp with potentially enormous rewards

All, of course, are bots, and they’re slipping through the spam net into people’s DM inboxes on Twitter. It’s a failure of moderation, which is not unusual on Twitter, and may result from the massive cuts to personnel that Musk has ordered since he bought the company in October 2022. From a staff of around 8,000 people, there are now fewer than 1,000 employees working for the social media company.

Many of the fired staff members were in teams overseeing things such as anti-spam moderation and content checking, according to former Twitter employees, meaning that the teams tasked with trying to tame bots are smaller than ever.

Public problems with bot accounts

Twitter’s bot problem isn’t just limited to private DM inboxes, either. It’s out in the open, where you can see inauthentic behavior in the replies to many popular tweets. They tout Bitcoin projects, get-rich-quick schemes, and other scams designed to phish unsuspecting users and trick them into giving up their personal information.

It all adds up to reputational risks for Musk’s platform, which is still trying to woo advertisers back after they took flight following his takeover. The recent hiring of former NBC executive Linda Yaccarino as Twitter’s new CEO is designed to quell dissent among advertisers and to reassure them that the platform will become more brand safe for them. However, the rise of scammy and spammy responses on the platform may well set all that hard work back.

The scale of Twitter’s bot problem is already alienating users, evidenced by continued complaints regarding the number of inauthentic or annoying messages they receive. Being seen as a low-quality, spammy sort of place can be terminal for a platform like Twitter, especially when it was once known as “the place to be” and the “de facto public square,” as described by Musk himself.

Given that Musk’s stated aim was to clean Twitter of bots and to ensure that it’s a trustworthy public forum, it seems like he’s struggling to make that happen. Without positive change in the near future, the company faces significant reputational risks resulting from unrealistic promises and general mismanagement.

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