A new study from the University of Southern California (USC) found that a significant amount of interactions (likes, retweets, and followers) on Twitter (NYSE: TWTR) are not coming from humans, but from bots.
The USC estimated that the bot population on Twitter is between 9% and 15%. The microblogging company currently has 319 million monthly active users (MAUs). Using the high-end estimate of the university’s researchers, there are 48 million bot accounts on Twitter.
Twitter has been struggling to increase its user base amid strong competition from other social networks such as Facebook (NASDAQ: FB), Instagram, The study indicating as much 15% or 48 million are bot accounts could be a big problem for the microblogging company.
“We estimated the population of bots using different models. This approach allows us to identify lower and upper bounds for the prevalence of Twitter bots. Models trained using the annotated dataset alone yield estimates of up to 15% of accounts being bots,” according to USC researchers.
Very sophisticated bot accounts are present on Twitter
They also pointed that their 15% estimate is conservative citing the fact that some bots are highly-sophisticated that “can systematically escape a human annotator’s judgment.”
The USC researchers said, “These complex bots may be active on Twitter, and therefore present in our data sets, and may have been incorrectly labeled as humans.”
In 2014, Twitter acknowledged in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that up to approximately 8.5% of active Twitter accounts are updated automatically “without any discernable additional user-initiated action.” At the time, the company has 271 million MAUS—the 8.5% is equivalent to about 23 million bot accounts.
Based on the USC estimate, the current bot accounts on Twitter increased by more than 20 million. The number could discourage advertisers because they want to reach potential consumers to buy their products or services.
It also appears that bot accounts on Twitter are increasing faster than human user accounts. Equity analysts and investors are concerned with the microblogging company’s slow user growth because it has a significant impact on its financial performance.
In a recent note to investors, analysts at Nomura Instinet wrote, “Twitter’s revenue growth has slowed to the mid-single digits, as the platform has struggled to attract new users over the past year…”
Some social bots are helpful
A spokesperson for Twitter admitted to CNBC that bots have negative implications, but emphasized that “many bot accounts are extremely beneficial, like those the automatically alert people of natural disasters…or from customer service points of view.”
USC researchers noted that “many social bots perform useful social functions such as dissemination of news and publications and coordination of volunteer activities.” However they also pointed out that “there is a growing record of malicious applications of social bots.” Some emulate human behavior to manufacture fake grassroots political support, promote terrorist propaganda and recruitment, manipulate the stock market, and disseminate rumors and conspiracy theories.”
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