Twitter's Bot Problem: How Bad Is It for Businesses?

Barack Obama's Twitter account has roughly 132 million followers, making his social handle the most followed account on Twitter. But this count fell by 300,000 following the announcement of Space X founder, Elon Musk, planning to buy the social media platform.

Twitter removes millions of bots and fake accounts on a daily basis, but even big personalities aren’t spared from this type of fraud in the first place.

In this context, we meant bots as the fake, automated social media accounts which spam — like, tweet or retweet, DM, or click on links — through scripted programs to accumulate social media karma, with their creators often getting fraudulently paid for the effort. These spambots are a menace on Twitter, and the situation is getting worse.

In this article, we examine the severity of Twitter's bot problem, what ignited the discussion around its prevalence, and how the issue affects businesses looking to run paid campaigns on the platform.

Is Twitter dominated by bots?

In its recent SEC filing, Twitter, Inc. stated that they have performed an internal review of a sample of accounts and estimated that false or spam accounts represented less than 5% of their monetizable daily monthly active users (mDAU).

The platform has, however, warned that they might easily be wrong. "In making this determination," the report goes on to say, "we applied significant judgment, so our estimation of false or spam accounts may not accurately represent the actual number of such accounts, and the actual number of false or spam accounts could be higher than we have estimated."

Parag Agrawal, the CEO of Twitter, commented that the Twitter team suspends over half a million spam accounts every day. “We also lock millions of accounts each week that we suspect may be spam – if they can't pass human verification challenges (captchas, phone verification, etc).”

That's not so bad. Though undesirable, a bot issue of 5% can go almost unnoticed. But many people think that the figure hardly reflects the reality of the platform. Among these people is Elon Musk.

Earlier in April of this year, the tech billionaire offered to buy the Twitter platform. However, he subsequently put the deal on hold, requesting Twitter to support their calculation that spam/fake accounts do indeed represent less than 5% of users. According to Musk, around 20% of the accounts on Twitter are fake or spam — four times what Twitter claimed them to be — and he's concerned the number might even be higher.

There's a lot of underlying politics around the bot problem on Twitter. Is Elon Musk citing the high number of spambots on Twitter to get out of the buyout? Is Twitter lying about its figures and leveraging a pristine platform on paper to trick Mr. Musk into a terrible deal?

Opinions of third parties

"Many people have asked me why Musk would challenge the issue of fake accounts," says Accelerator Economy's Tony Uphoff. "Simply put, he [Elon Musk] knows that Twitter executives, as does anyone running a social media site, have a very strong incentive not to disclose how many fake accounts they have."

The audience research platform SparkToro partnered with Followerwonk, a Twitter research tool, to analyze over 44,000 random public Twitter profiles that were active in the preceding three months of their research window. The researchers' analysis found that 19.42% of the sample data were spam or fake accounts.

Now, 20% of spambots is a scarily high number for any social platform, and the repercussions for businesses running ads on the platform would be massive.

Michael Baggs, strategy director at Social Element, told The Wall Street Journal that it would be bad for advertisers if Twitter has more bots than the 5% it claims. What should businesses do? Mediahub's Erica Patrick, senior vice president of the ad-buying firm, added: “Services from third-party fraud detection and verification tools can be used to discern deception in paid social campaigns.”

There are numerous conflicting views regarding whether or not the number of spambots on Twitter is exaggerated. But virtually everyone agrees that the issue should be given proper attention.

How spambots affect businesses that run ads on Twitter

Spambots form the underlying culprit behind so much of the frustration experienced by advertisers on Twitter. These bots create ad sales volatility and stifle advertisers' return on investment. It is no surprise that one of the cons of advertising on Twitter is that it could use up too much of your advertising budget too quickly.

There are several other implications, aside from monetary, of reaching bots unknowingly. Many brands should be more terrified of the skewed data they gather from their Twitter campaigns. The insights provided by those campaigns are a hoax, and any decision made based on those analytics is almost certain to backfire.

When spambots dominate an advertising network, running A/B testing also loses its meaning for neither split A nor B would accurately represent what the market actually wants.

Learn more: How Does Ad Fraud Affect Marketers?


It is worth noting that most of the discussion around spambots on Twitter isn't about marketers taking aim at a social media company. Instead, it is about an industry waking up to the reality of an awful situation and making an effort to rectify it. It's about advertisers gaining back the hope that their ad dollars will be spent reaching the people they intended, rather than being squandered on a facade of engagement that is ad fraud.

Thus, we would be remiss if we did not mention that manually setting up criteria for defining spam bots is challenging. "It is hard to know for certain that an account on Twitter is a bot, since legitimate users may have few followers, rarely tweet, or have strange usernames," wrote Wired's Will Knight. "It is even more difficult to gauge the number of bots that operate across the platform as a whole." and not all bots are bad.

Spambots are terrible for business. In the end, the most valuable outcome of the Twitter bot saga is that it shines a spotlight on the issue of ad fraud. Hopefully, the discussion will extend to other social and web advertising platforms, but you always have the option to protect yourself before invalid clicks start eating away your valuable ad spend. Book a demo with a Spider AF expert today to see how we can help you get rid of fraud in your Twitter Ads campaign.

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