Spam bots: What are they?

A person browses social media as platforms grapple with spam bots.

A person browses social media as platforms grapple with spam bots. Image: Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

Spencer Feingold
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • Spam bots are automated profiles that mimic real-life user behaviour to spread content.
  • Some bots are benevolent and can improve a user's experience online. However, many bots are malicious.
  • Spam bots are often used to spread harmful or false content.

Spam bots made headlines recently after Elon Musk announced he would pull out of a deal to buy Twitter due to a lack of transparency regarding the number of bots on the platform. But what exactly are spam bots?

Spam bots, also known as spam or fake accounts, are automated profiles that mimic real-life user behaviour to spread content. Most are powered by computer programs and operate with little to no human involvement. Spam bots are common on all major social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Telegram and Twitter, among others.

Some bots are benevolent and can improve a user's experience online. Bot accounts on Twitter, for instance, can be programmed to provide real-time updates on the weather or a certain stock price. However, many bots are malicious.

Why are spam bots an issue?

Spam bots are often used to spread harmful or false content.

They can be used to advance an array of nefarious efforts, including manipulating public opinion, distorting financial markets, interfering in elections and spreading phishing attacks. Bots have also been used to inflate the online popularity of certain individuals or harass others.

Take the US presidential election in 2016, for example. Following the vote, Twitter identified over 50,000 Russian-linked spam accounts that were spreading divisive content related to the election. Spam bots have also been used to spread misinformation about COVID-19. In fact, 66% of bots analyzed in one study were found to have been pushing COVID-related content.

Many platforms use CAPTCHA tests and other registration requirements to weed out bots and ensure users are human. However, these guardrails are not infallible and experts say that, as computer programs get more advanced, online bots are becoming increasingly harder to identify and thwart.

Have you read?

How spam bots allegedly foiled Musk’s Twitter bid

In April 2022, Elon Musk announced a bid to acquire Twitter. In subsequent months, Musk demanded insight into the number of bots operating on the platform. Twitter's CEO, Parag Agrawal, took to the platform in May, stating that bots make up less than 5% of Twitter accounts and that an external analysis was not possible due to privacy concerns.

In early July, executives reportedly stated that Twitter was removing over 1 million spam bots a day. Yet on 8 July, Musk’s lawyers submitted a regulatory filing requesting to terminate his $44 billion acquisition of Twitter. The filing claimed that Twitter had "failed or refused" to provide adequate information about spam bots.

Twitter has stated that it remains committed to closing the deal at the agreed-upon price, setting up what will likely be a lengthy legal battle.

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