December 3, 2022

Elon Musk’s demand to know how many fake accounts or bots are on Twitter has been headline news since the Tesla tycoon offered $44 billion for the social media company.

Twitter Inc. reiterated that it will hold Elon Musk accountable to the terms of his proposed $44 billion takeover offer after the billionaire again threatened to pull out of the deal over the issue of bots. Musk has estimated that fake accounts make up at least 20% of all users.

How many social media accounts are actually social media bots?

Twitter executives have testified before Congress that as many as 5% of Twitter accounts are operated by bots. Experts who have applied logarithms designed to spot bot behavior have found the number may be closer to 15%. That number likely applies to other social platforms as well.

A report released last year from IT security company Imperva indicates that COVID-19 helped give birth to a historic amount of nonhuman activity on the internet.

“In 2020, bad bot traffic has maintained its upwards trend, amounting to 25.6% of all traffic, a new record,” the report said. “Combined with good bot traffic, 40.8% of internet traffic this past year wasn’t human, as human traffic decreased by 5.7% to 59.2 percent of all traffic.”

The Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs defines social media bots as programs that vary in size depending on their function, capability and design, and can be used on social media platforms to do various useful and malicious tasks while simulating human behavior. These programs use artificial intelligence, big data analytics and other programs or databases to imitate legitimate users posting content.

A 2020 report by the Federal Trade Commission stated that over 37% of all internet traffic is not human and is instead the work of bots designed for either good or bad purposes.

Common attack methods of bots

Click farming or like farming

Inflate fame or popularity on a website through liking or reposting of content via click farms, which provide fake user account (typically semi-automated social media bots) and management of social media bots (e.g., bot herder) for purchase.

Hashtag highjacking

Use hashtags to focus an attack (e.g., spam, malicious links) on a specific audience using the same hashtag.

Repost storm

Use a parent social media bot account, or martyr social media bot, to initiate an attack by reposting something, which an associated group of social media bots (aka botnet) instantly reposts.

Sleeper bots

Remain dormant for long periods of time, wake up to launch their attack of thousands of posts or retweets in a short period of time (perhaps as a Retweet Storm, or spam attack), then return to a dormant state.

Trend jacking and watering hole attack

Use top trending topics to focus on an intended audience for targeting purposes.

 

Sources: Department of Homeland Security, Forbes, The Associated Press, Pew Research Center, Federal Trade Commission

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