Musk was backed by bots on Twitter

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Elon Musk has promised to clean up Twitter by showing the world why he boosts some tweets above others and purging it of automated accounts that loudly promote get-rich-quick schemes, products and politicians.

“If our Twitter auction succeeds, we’ll beat the spambots or die trying!” Musk tweeted April 21th. “If someone is leading an army of robots and trolls, then I am definitely their enemy.” he said at the Met Gala last weekend.

But Musk himself received mechanized reinforcement, the researchers say, including through accounts that praised its most valuable investment, Tesla shares, when the electric car company faced negative news due to crashes, poor financial results and clashes with regulators.

These researchers say bots – automated accounts programmed to perform predefined tasks, often at speeds faster than a person could – have been deployed to harass critics of Musk, to trumpet the controversial takeover approved by Twitter’s board and even to portray Musk as a model of manhood and the opposite of propaganda outwit George Soros, a liberal financier and subject of viral anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

Musk’s non-binding promise of a duel to the death has raised eyebrows among experts who say ever-improving robot technology is making them harder to spot, especially among billions of posts. Some experts point out that Musk himself likely has millions of “fanbots” among his 91.3 million Twitter followers.

Musk is a near-perfect magnet for automated hype, researchers say. For those involved in the market, he runs a business that is riskier than most, is prone to volatile price movements and serious criticism, and is often short-sold in search of profits. on his backs..

Beyond that, Musk is widely admired, is the richest man in the world, dates celebrities, and supports not only cryptocurrencies, but even meaningless cryptocurrencies, as the old known joke under the name of Dogecoin.

With his push for “free speech” on Twitter, Musk is becoming a bigger player in politics, an area of ​​online discourse in which researchers have long found evidence of rogue accounts.

This was the case with Donald Trump in 2016, when Oxford University researchers found that pro-Trump bots became more aggressive during the final presidential debate, in which pro-Trump bots outnumbered pro-Hillary Clinton bots by a factor of seven.

“When we tend to see a really divisive number that people feel the need to pull together to show they’re supported, we tend to see more bot activity,” said April Glaser, principal investigator at the Shorenstein Center. on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.

Bots can drive real-world behavior in myriad ways, increasing popularity or encouraging direct abuse by humans. “It just creates a stack,” Glaser said. “When it seems like everyone is doing it, it’s easier for one more person to do it.”

Musk’s multifaceted activity would attract spammers without any help from the man himself, and there is no evidence that he sought out or coordinated their actions.

Many pro-Musk tweets show little sophistication in the content that goes into designing a reusable rocket or a plug-in car. A typically deep example, from @Stock_Tracker1, reads: “$TSLA Recent News Tesla Raised to Overtake Baird in Production,” followed by a link to the stock web chat. Some bots report all news, including negative reports.

But it’s reasonable to wonder if a Tesla contractor or subcontractor is responsible for some of the pro-Musk tweets, says University of Maryland professor David Kirsch, who will present the first of three articles this month. examining the influence of bots on Tesla fans and stock prices. .

The main other category of suspects would be “individual shareholders or pro-Tesla people who have the technical skills to do so,” Kirsch said.

The presence of some robots became evident shortly after the automaker’s stock was hit by reports of Model S cars catching fire. In a period of 75 minutes in November 2013, eight new accounts appeared on Twitter and started posting to the stock.

In the following years, these eight accounts alone have posted 30,000 times using the ticker symbol TSLA – at such regular intervals and in such volume that the odds that they represent eight real people are infinitesimally small, Kirsch mentioned. One account, @danrocks4, posted bursts of messages an average of every three hours around the clock for more than six years, according to Kirsch and co-author Mohsen Chowdhury.

Using a free tool called Botometer, which ranks the likelihood of an account being mechanized, from a score of 0 for an almost certain human account to 5 for an almost certain bot, Kirsch and Chowdhury found that 23 % of 157,000 tweets with the #TSLA hashtag from the 2010 IPO through 2020 came from accounts with a Botometer score of 4 or greater. (Developed at Indiana University, Botometer uses machine learning to compare a given account against tens of thousands of known bots or real people. The program uses thousands of data points in each comparison, including the number and nature of linked accounts and volume of tweets.)

Apple and Amazon have comparable levels of bot activity, Kirsch said, but those boosters were more likely to include other stock symbols and refer to broader market movements, while Tesla pumps were more likely to refer to Tesla products, or Musk, or the specific company. prospects.

“When you get to Tesla, there’s a lot of product talk and very little other ticker talk,” he said.

The most prolific bots tend to have low followers and engagement. Kirsch thinks part of their goal may be to show up in the feeds of people who are already interested in Tesla.

Some automated accounts sprinkle in references to current events or domestic affairs to appear human. While it was once an exotic technology, it’s now so easy that marketing companies are doing it as a service. Because Musk has tens of millions of Twitter followers, more human-looking bots have a chance to gain traction and influence many people at once. experts say.

This opportunity also attracts partially or fully mechanized networks that have no real purpose other than to draw attention to something else.

Even some Twitter accounts that boosted Russia’s ‘troll factory’ tweets during the 2016 election have recently done the same for pro-Musk tweets that tag or praise him.

Examining accounts now boosted by Twitter personas that had boosted troll factory accounts later suspended by Twitter, researcher Chris Scott found some with American flags in their bios and constantly echoing what they say. Russian state media.

In this group, there are those who post content intended to inspire, but also who make mistakes: an account identified by Scott announced a conversion to Christianity long after he put “Christian” in his bio, and the same account has celebrated three years of sobriety. a few months after turning six.

A Account on the same network two weeks ago tweeted four times in five days a version of “We need more men like Elon Musk and less like George Soros, who agrees?”

He continued to tout Musk, retweeting Tuesday to over 60,000 followers: “Elon Musk has already done more for the United States than Elizabeth Warren ever could or will!”

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