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Twitter Bots, Elon Musk’s Issue With Them and How Google, Facebook Monitor Fake Accounts: An Explainer

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Elon Musk’s pausing of his bid to buy Twitter due to questions over “bots” has put the artificially-operated accounts at the heart of the proposed deal’s latest controversy.

The software is so commonplace and can be such a problem that tech giants such as Meta, Google and Twitter have teams devoted to banishing bots and cybersecurity firms sell defenses against them.

Here’s a closer look at bots:

Human or software?

At a basic level, “bots” are software programmes that interact with online platforms, or their users, pretending to be real people, said Tamer Hassan, co-founder and chief of cybersecurity firm HUMAN.

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Malicious bots have become sophisticated and are among this decade’s top cyber threats, said Hassan, whose firm specialises in distinguishing people from software online.

The term bots at Twitter is often used to describe fake accounts, powered by some version of artificial intelligence, that can fire off posts and even react to what is posted by others, said independent analyst Rob Enderle.

Tickets and turmoil

Bots are used in more than three quarters of security and fraud incidents that happen online, from spreading socially divisive posts to snapping up hot concert tickets and hacking, Hassan told AFP.

“The question is, what would you do if you could look like a million humans?” Hassan asked rhetorically.

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“Across all social media platforms, bots can be used to spread content to influence people’s opinions, garner reactions and can even result in cybercrime.”

Bots can be used on social media to widely spread false news, direct users to misinformation, steer people to specious websites and make bogus posts seem popular using shares or “likes.”

See also  Meta India Head Ajit Mohan Resigns, To Reportedly Join Rival Snap

Bots on social media can also sucker people into financial scams, Hassan added.

“Social media platforms have had bots for a long time,” analyst Enderle said. “Bots have been connected to attempts to influence the US election and shape opinions about Russia’s war on Ukraine.”

The deal with Twitter

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Twitter makes its money from ads, and marketers pay for reaching people, not software.

“Advertising to bots isn’t going to have a good close rate because bots don’t buy products,” Enderle noted.

If advertisers are paying Twitter fees based on how many people see ads, and those numbers are inflated due to bots in the online audience, they are being overcharged, Enderle added.

If Twitter has way more bots than it is letting on, its revenue could plunge when those accounts are exposed and closed.

Twitter chief executive Parag Agrawal has said that fewer than five percent of accounts active on any given day at Twitter are bots, but that analysis cannot be replicated externally due to the need to keep user data private.

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Musk posted that the real number of bots may be four times higher and has said he would make getting rid of them a priority if he owned the platform.

Twitter has rules about automated actions by accounts, including barring software from posting about hot topics, firing off spam, attempting to influence online conversations, and operating across multiple accounts.

Bots are a known social media problem, and having Musk make it a sticking point this late in the acquisition process appears to likely be “a vehicle to escape the purchase or get a lower price,” Enderle said.

See also  Elon Musk Takes Swipe at Twitter’s Lawsuit Threat, Suggests Bot Information Will Be Disclosed in Court

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Meta Oversight Board Calls for Overhaul of ‘Cross-Check’ Programme That Prioritises VIP Users

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Meta Platforms’ Oversight Board recommended on Tuesday that the company revamp its system exempting high-profile users from its rules, saying the practice privileged the powerful and allowed business interests to influence content decisions.

The arrangement, called cross-check, adds a layer of enforcement review for millions of Facebook and Instagram accounts belonging to celebrities, politicians and other influential users, allowing them extra leeway to post content that violates the company’s policies.

Cross-check “prioritises users of commercial value to Meta and as structured does not meet Meta’s human rights responsibilities and company values,” Oversight Board director Thomas Hughes said in a statement announcing the decision.

The board had been reviewing the cross-check programme since last year, when whistleblower Frances Haugen exposed the extent of the system by leaking internal company documents to the Wall Street Journal.

Those documents revealed that the programme was both larger and more forgiving of influential users than Meta had previously told the Oversight Board, which is funded by the company through a trust and operates independently.

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Without controls on eligibility or governance, cross-check sprawled to include nearly anyone with a substantial online following, although even with millions of members it represents a tiny slice of Meta’s 3.7 billion total users.

In 2019, the system blocked the company’s moderators from removing nude photos of a woman posted by Brazilian soccer star Neymar, even though the post violated Meta’s rules against “nonconsensual intimate imagery,” according to the WSJ report.

The board at the time of the report rebuked Meta for not being “fully forthcoming” in its disclosures about cross-check.

See also  Facebook Ordered to Pull Financial Fraud Adverts by Dutch Court

In the opinion it issued on Tuesday, the board said it agreed that Meta needed mechanisms to address enforcement mistakes, given the extraordinary volume of user-generated content the company moderates each day.

However, it added, Meta “has a responsibility to address these larger problems in ways that benefit all users and not just a select few.”

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It made 32 recommendations that it said would structure the programme more equitably, including transparency requirements, audits of the system’s impact and a more systematic approach to eligibility.

State actors, it said, should continue to be eligible for inclusion in the programme, but based only on publicly available criteria, with no other special preferences.

The Oversight Board’s policy recommendations are not binding, but Meta is required to respond to them, normally within 60 days.

A spokeswoman for the Oversight Board said the company had asked for and received an extension in this case, so it would have 90 days to respond.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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Facebook Dating Will Allow Users to Verify Their Age Using AI Face Scanning, Meta Says

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Meta on Monday announced that it has introduced a new method for users to verify their age on its Facebook Dating service. Facebook is experimenting with methods, such as using an AI face scanner, to allow users of the platform’s dating service to verify their age.

Meta announced in a blog post that it would start prompting users on Facebook Dating to verify that they’re over 18 if the platform suspects a user is underage.

Users can then verify their age by sharing a selfie video that Facebook shares with a third-party business or by uploading a copy of their ID. According to Meta, the company, Yoti, uses facial cues to determine a user’s age without identifying them.

Meta says the new age verification systems will help stop children from accessing features meant for adults. It doesn’t appear that there are any requirements for adults to verify their age on Facebook Dating.

The US social media giant has used Yoti for other age verification purposes, including vetting Instagram users who attempt to change their birthdate to make them 18 or older.

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However, according to a report by The Verge, the system isn’t equally accurate for all people: Yoti’s data shows that its accuracy is worse for “female” faces and people with darker complexions.

Last year, Instagram announced that it had started prompting users to fill in their birthday details. The prompts could initially be dismissed but the social media giant eventually made it compulsory for users who wanted to continue using Instagram. The prompts were designed to ascertain how old users were on Instagram and prevent content that isn’t suitable for young people to appear on their feed. At the time, Instagram had stated that the information is necessary for new features it was developing to protect young people.

See also  Donald Trump Snubs Twitter After Elon Musk Reactivates Former US President's Account

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WhatsApp Beta Update Adds ‘Picture-in-Picture’ Support During Video Calls for iOS Testers: Report

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WhatsApp has reportedly begun testing the ability to use ‘picture-in-picture’ (PIP) mode during video calls on iOS. The Meta-owned messaging app continues to develop new features for the popular messaging app, and is rolling out a new update for its beta testers on iOS that will add the feature to use other apps and multitask while video calling via WhatsApp, according to a feature tracker. ‘Picture-in-picture’ mode isn’t new to WhatsApp for iOS — it already supports the feature when playing media shared from websites like YouTube and Facebook.

According to a report from WhatsApp feature tracker WABetaInfo, select users part of the TestFlight beta program will receive the feature as part of the update to version 22.24.0.79 on iOS. A screengrab on the website shows the ability to multitask with other apps during an ongoing video call on WhatsApp. The video call window can be temporarily hidden as well. Users who have received the update can check if they have received the feature by trying to use a different app while placing a video call.

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A screenshot of the picture-in-picture mode in action shared by the feature tracker

Photo Credit: WABetaInfo

The report states that the PIP feature is working on iOS 16.1 or above, with previous versions not yet supported despite being compatible with the update. “Note that, even if this feature is compatible with iOS 15 and newer versions of iOS, we have no evidence that it is also enabled for users on iOS 15 at the moment,” WABetaInfo said. The update should soon be available for the wider user base as well.

See also  Facebook Ordered to Pull Financial Fraud Adverts by Dutch Court

The new update to beta version 22.24.0.79 follows a slew of WhatsApp updates on the iOS platform. Most recently, iOS beta testers received a ‘search by date’ feature that let users search specific messages by date within a chat, adding a calendar icon in the search option.

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WhatsApp users also received a ‘Message Yourself’ feature to send themselves reminders and take notes, the ability to include captions when forwarding media, and a voice note feature for status updates.

Probably the biggest feature added recently to the app on both iOS and Android was WhatsApp Polls, which let users create polls in both personal and group chats. The feature is also found on rival messaging services, like Telegram.


Apple launched the iPad Pro (2022) and the iPad (2022) alongside the new Apple TV this week. We discuss the company’s latest products, along with our review of the iPhone 14 Pro on Orbital, the Gadgets 360 podcast. Orbital is available on Spotify, Gaana, JioSaavn, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music and wherever you get your podcasts.

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