In the wake of Elon Musk’s pending purchase of Twitter, almost every major aspect of the company (and Musk himself) has come under scrutiny. One of the latest major controversies has surrounded Musk’s displeasure with so-called Twitter ‘bots,’ spam accounts that are not controlled by humans, and churn out fake responses and fake posts all over Twitter. Based on Twitter’s traditional methods of monitoring bots, the platform pegs the percentage of all Twitter accounts that are spam at around five percent. With Twitter’s methods of bot regulation remaining largely private, however, this relatively low estimation has caused Musk a great deal of annoyance and frustration. After taking a random survey of accounts following his own Twitter account, Musk has determined the true number of bot Twitter accounts to be closer to twenty percent and has used his supposed findings to lash out at Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal. This past weekend, Musk began threatening to slash his offer to purchase Twitter by twenty-five percent if the number of bots on the platform is found to be twenty-five percent. All of this begs the question: what is the history of internet bots, and how have they become so prevalent on Twitter?

The first internet bots were created in the late 1980s and early 1990s and were originally intended to serve a very positive purpose. To this day, the most common use of internet bots is for what is called ‘crawling’: sifting through millions and even billions of files on the internet in order to find those that are most relevant to real human beings. Without bots and their filtering abilities, large-scale search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing would not be possible. Bots have also been used to speed up the efficiency of services when a company is unable to place a real person on a phone or computer. Many airlines and technology companies have extremely long wait times before customers are able to speak to a real human being for assistance. Resultantly, many have implemented bot assistance programs that can provide a degree of help over the phone or online. In online gaming servers, computer-generated bots are able to compete against real people, allowing competitive games to be played even when there are no real people to compete against.

“Without bots and their filtering abilities, large-scale search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing would not be possible…”

In more recent years, however, bots have come under increasing scrutiny. Malicious internet users have started to use bots for their own purposes, creating a wave of problems across every corner of the internet. The 2000s and 2010s saw a massive spike in spam emails. Many of these emails provided a phony link that, if clicked, would install a virus into any device that had clicked the link. While some viruses cause simple problems like slower performance and lower battery retention on phones and computers, others have been used to steal important personal information like credit card numbers and even social security numbers. The skill and talent of internet hackers and their mastery of bots have reshaped the ways in which many people use and protect sensitive information online, which in the long run might actually be seen as a positive development. Despite this, the battle to keep hackers in check and stay ahead of the curve remains ongoing, and hackers have inflicted a great deal of damage on society.

While private hackers and their use of internet bots constitute a great threat, world governments have also started manipulating internet bots to their own ends. In the 2016 United States Presidential Election, a great deal of attention was given to the use of internet bots on American internet platforms by foreign governments like those Russia and China. The Russian government is especially adept at stirring up conspiracy theories, creating division, and heightening polarization all across the American political spectrum, giving a voice to extremist views. Much of this was accomplished not by real people but by pre-programmed internet bots on major American sites like Facebook and Twitter. China has garnered a lot of attention for its use of bots and spam accounts to control its own people in the internet age. With the banning of foreign internet platforms like Google and Twitter in favor of Chinese government-run platforms like WeChat and Baidu, the Chinese government enjoys great control over what can and cannot be said online. In the last decade, Chinese internet platforms have become overrun with both a surge of pro-government bots and also human-operated spam accounts. China employs a so-called ‘fifty-cent army’ of lower-class workers to go on the internet each day, create and run fake accounts, and echo pro-government propaganda. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin has also hiked up its use of bots in order to suppress dissent and stir up support for Vladimir Putin among the Russian public. The monitoring abilities associated with government-run internet platforms and bots have created a climate of fear and obedience within both China and Russia, limiting free speech and free thought.

“The Russian government is especially adept at stirring up conspiracy theories, creating division and heightening polarization all across the American political spectrum…”

Malicious hackers and foreign encroachments only explain a portion of Musk’s frustration with bots, however. For while the exact number of Twitter bots present on the platform remains unknown, bots are able to influence conversations covering an entire range of issues. Twitter’s trending page is entirely reliant upon finding the most common topic of discussion on the platform and pushing it to the forefront, which in turn creates even more traffic and discussion on that topic. If bots are able to churn out millions of hashtags on a particular topic in a short span of time, then that topic is bound to get attention. In this way, bots can greatly influence mainstream thought. While some bots are benign or even simply secondary accounts created by mainstream users, a great many of them are malicious, whether they are trying to hack other people’s devices, steal information, or even simply forward a particular agenda. While Musk has often taken a childish approach in his discourse on bots, resorting to petty insults and streams of emojis, the internet bot problem that exists on Twitter and other internet sites is quite real. As the internet develops, it remains to be seen if there is anything to be done to further combat the bot problem.