Elon Musk’s planned takeover of Twitter Inc. has put a spotlight on the company’s failure to ensure its users are always who they say they are. Musk has vowed to make Twitter a platform populated strictly by humans. That means cleaning out spam bot accounts that have been used to market products, promote misinformation and conduct scams.
1. What are spam bots?
On Twitter, bots are automated accounts that can do the same things as real human beings: send out tweets, follow other users, and like and retweet postings by others. However, spam bots use these actions to engage in deceptive, harmful and annoying activity. Spam bots programmed with a commercial motivation might tweet incessantly in an attempt to drive traffic to a website for a product or service. They can be used to spread misinformation and promote political messages. In the 2016 presidential election, there were concerns that Russian bots helped influence the race in favor of Donald Trump, who won it. Spam bots can also disseminate fraudulent links to fake giveaways and other financial scams. After announcing his plans to acquire Twitter, Musk said one of his major priorities is cracking down on spam bots that promote scams involving cryptocurrencies.
2. What is Twitter doing to combat spam bots?
Bots are allowed on Twitter, though under the company’s policy, such accounts are supposed to indicate that they’re automated. The platform has even launched a label for “good” bots, such as @tinycarebot, an account that tweets self-care reminders. Spam bots, however, are not permitted, and the company has policies meant to combat them. Users are encouraged to report policy violations. The company locks accounts with suspicious activity. To get back in, users may have to provide additional information such as a phone number or solve a reCAPTCHA challenge, which entails completing a puzzle or typing in a phrase seen in an image to confirm they’re human. Twitter also can permanently suspend spam accounts. The company estimated that fake accounts and spam accounted for less than 5% of its daily active users in the fourth quarter of 2021.
3. Can more be done to improve Twitter’s security?
Musk certainly seems to think so. In a statement April 25, he said he wanted to improve Twitter by “enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans.” Making Twitter’s algorithms open source for processes like content moderation could potentially give the platform more credibility by allowing anyone to review its code, spot vulnerabilities and give suggestions for improvements. Making greater use of security methods like reCAPTCHA could help crack down on spam bots. Twitter could increase deployment of multifactor authentication, a type of identity verification where users have to confirm who they are and that they’re human by using another communications channel such as phone or email. The company could also boost usage of machine learning algorithms that could help identify spam bots based on their Twitter activity.
4. Why is security such a challenge for Twitter?
For social media companies like Twitter that rely heavily on mobile app usage, security can be difficult because apps are often more vulnerable than websites accessed through an internet browser on a desktop computer or laptop. Web browsers like Google Chrome update and make security improvements in the background without a user realizing it. When it comes to a mobile app, users often have to make the update themselves in order to ensure that a new security patch is in place. More established tech companies like Google and Microsoft also have large designated security teams putting them ahead of social media companies when it comes to security.
5. What’s at stake for Twitter?
Twitter could lose users who are frustrated, concerned or even harmed by spam bots and fraudulent activity. Persistent security issues could also draw more attention from regulators who want to rein in Twitter and the broader tech industry. On the flip side, a tougher crackdown on spam bots could hurt Twitter’s total user count by cleaning out fake accounts.
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