Lately, Elon Musk has dominated the news with his plans to take over Twitter and save a struggling company that has not reported a profit in a decade. Of all the missions Musk has taken on, this could be the biggest so far; not because there are no alternative social media platforms, and not because Twitter is an established right of communications. This is a significant mission, because he is truly uncovering one of the worst blights of the modern web: bots.
The Twitter bot debate
I have been on this topic for just about a year, beginning at the time when discussing the emergence of meme stocks and the GameStop investment saga. Driven by social media and forums, crowds of investors were able to flip Wall Street and its narratives. I couldn’t help but note that the influence of bots and unvalidated accounts were a massive and unacceptable factor in the price gyrations of these speculative stocks.
What Musk continues to reveal is how automated bots (and perhaps some are human-sourced) are ruining the web experience for everyone. Bots have crept into the picture on every platform, and now they seem to be everywhere.
We can debate the influence of bots over individuals, but today bots are actively being used to:
- Fake support for elections
- Suppress free speech through downvotes, upvotes (Reddit, etc.)
- Drive cost of crypto (up or down)
- Drive the price of meme stocks (up or down)
- Fake accounts for phishing and cybercrime
- Inflict marketing and PPC Abuse
- Shape public opinions
An age of identity questions
The questions that are emerging out of this anti-bot mission speak to the fundamentals of identity and digital engagement:
- Are we individuals in thought or do we simply echo what we see in media? Do we really choose what we think? How do you know?
- Who is the “me” that people see online?
- Who are these other people? How do I know they are real?
- Who is behind Twitter (now)?
- What value does Twitter really provide?
The most important question of all, however, is:
- What is authentic?
Authenticity is the key
We can’t pretend that with the way things are and the way things will be, authenticity is not the top problem for the modern web. This is especially troubling as we embark upon the dawn of a virtual reality age many are referring to as the metaverse. Humans expect that when they engage with an identity, be it a company or a person, they are engaging with the real thing, not a bot with AI.
Bots are a plague. They have no place in communities that are supposed to be for real people, and Twitter is such a platform. The web was supposed to be the great equalizer, where any real voice could engage and interact with people, companies, and other entities, no questions asked. Bots and spam are ruining that, and bots now have their fingerprints on social media. If you’re a bot, tell me you’re a bot, and I can deal with that by filtering you, or ignoring you. I can tell you right now that I am not a bot.
The solution to this paradigm is surprisingly simple; we do it everywhere. Organizations can’t login without proper authentication, so why can’t Twitter and other social/forum peers do the same? We can authenticate and yet preserve anonymity if needed. These are not opposing objectives.
Authentic Elon does the diligence
As a fellow CEO, I have lived through and sympathize with the deliberate process of due diligence when acquiring companies. Every stone will be turned over – financials, intellectual property, leases, core mission, employee records, and everything else that is the business. This is a very big transaction that will take time. Whether that diligence disrupts the deal in any way or changes the purchase remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, Musk is publicly calling the identity issue out. Though tinged with some dirty laundry, the presence of fake accounts, abandoned accounts, spam, and bots never sound like a good thing to the public (and that’s a good thing).
The spectacle is achieving levels of authenticity that most people have forgotten about. Beyond tweet policing and the influence of bots, Elon is displaying and sharing what he wants Twitter to be.
Making a better Twitter
Ultimately, the core of the matter is that Musk is quantifying what the Twitter product is, and what it could be. Will it continue to be a force of media, driven by bots, empty accounts, homogenized points of view, censorship, and news releases? Or is there a way to create an open, safe community of authentic thoughts and create the economic forces to keep it engaging and growing?
Just because we want spam and bots to go away, it doesn’t mean they will. Twitter needs to build a better, more secure community. Currently, it’s a mess from a security and authenticity standpoint. Users must feel safe, not from the thoughts of others, but from scams, bots, physical threats, slander, and more.
A road map to secure Twitter
As the saying goes, fences make good neighbours, and so does a bit of common-sense security. Here is some steps Twitter, and other social media platforms, can take:
- Twitter must implement security technologies and deploy them through their users. There are billions of alleged accounts that should go through the painful task of authentic validation.
- From this point onwards, Twitter can implement a green checkmark icon to note those accounts that are “valid.” Everyday people, everyday organizations – all of them valid.
- If a user is authenticated, but desires to remain anonymous, then perhaps a yellow check mark can be shown
- Users can choose to only engage with those that have validated – draw a line in the sand and only engage with those that are real.
- You could also have the community ability to rank users to help clean things up. We see it in Amazon, who still has its fair share of fake reviews, with 5 stars, 4 stars, 3 stars, etc.
That doesn’t even scratch the surface of all the cybersecurity measures that need to be in place to prevents scams, account hijacking, and phishing. This is where multi-factor authentication for users is critical.
Towards the mission
Musk is striking a nerve. Security of the platform is critical to Twitter’s success, as well as every other company success. Twitter valuation is about to take a major haircut due to their lax security practices, and so have companies before them. Hopefully these actions make a real change that affects other platforms in general where we can make strides to dispose of the vast majority of bots. We can never have the confidence that our engagements are authentic while bots remain so predominantly in place.
Would that achievement be as big as something like a mission to Mars? Probably not, but it is a necessary mission and if successful, it will make the virtual world a better place.