Amidst the ongoing legal jabs from both Twitter and Elon Musk’s legal teams, it becomes pretty easy to lose the narrative. But while media coverage would likely give the impression that Musk is simply trying to weasel out of a $44 billion deal, the two parties’ conflict is actually based on a key issue: Twitter bots.
Twitter has maintained that less than 5% of its users are spam or fake accounts, even in its filings to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Musk has scoffed at this estimate as the Tesla CEO believes that the number of bots on the social media platform is far higher. An estimate from Dan Woods, the Global Head of Intelligence at F5 and a former FBI special agent specializing in cybersecurity, suggests that Musk’s hunch is spot-on.
In a post on F5’s official website, Woods, who also worked for the CIA as a technical operations officer specializing in cyber operations, estimated that over 80% of Twitter’s accounts are actually bots. Woods was able to come to this conclusion after analyzing the social media platform and its countermeasures against automated accounts.
“When I consider the volume and velocity of automation we’re seeing today, the sophistication of bots that a given set of incentives is likely to attract, and the relative lack of countermeasures I saw in my own research, I can only come to one conclusion: In all likelihood, more than 80% of Twitter accounts are actually bots. This, of course, is my opinion,” Woods wrote.
The former FBI agent noted that bots are generally designed to accomplish a goal. In Twitter’s case, a key goal is to gain followers. More followers mean that an account becomes more influential, which could potentially be a security risk. What’s interesting is that there’s a means to get bots for Twitter, with countless entities offering Twitter accounts, followers, likes, and retweets for a fee. Some are even offered in the dark or deep web.
For research purposes, Woods tried these services on a Twitter account he created. And sure enough, they do work. The former FBI agent paid less than $1,000, but the account has now gained almost 100,000 followers. Woods even tried posting straight gibberish and paying a fee to have his followers retweet it — and they did. With this experience in mind, Woods took his tests further, and the results were pretty damning for Twitter’s anti-bot measures.
“I began to wonder how easy it would be to create a Twitter account using automation. I am not a programmer, but I researched automation frameworks on YouTube and Stack Overflow. Turns out, it’s easy.
“Taking my testing to the next level, over a weekend, I wrote a script that automatically creates Twitter accounts. My rather unsophisticated script was not blocked by any countermeasures. I didn’t try to change my IP address or user agent or do anything to conceal my activities. If it’s that easy for a person with limited skills, imagine how easy it is for an organization of highly skilled, motivated individuals,” Woods wrote.
It should be noted that Woods highlighted that bots are not a Twitter-only issue. Pretty much all social media platforms suffer from them. Objectively, however, it seems like Tesla CEO Elon Musk was right on target when he called out Twitter’s bot estimate. The social media platform may also have some explaining to do, especially as its own filings may very well be proven inaccurate.
Musk has commented on Woods’ findings on Twitter, joking that the price for 100,000 followers is actually not that bad.
The former FBI special agent’s full post can be accessed here.
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