What is this argument over Twitter bots really about?
Love him or hate him, Elon Musk continues to push the social media envelope with his ongoing struggles both for and against Twitter.
Is Elon Musk merely a muckraker- as Twitter board executives in their legal filings insist- determined to wrong-foot the gentle social media giant, drive down stock prices, perhaps even just for the hell of it?
Or is Musk starting an important, and long overdue, conversation about influence in online spaces like Twitter?
What’s really going on in Twitter’s public square? More importantly, just who exactly do we have in our new town square? How many bots are on Twitter?
The total number of bot accounts on Twitter, according to the Twitter board and its FEC filings, is less than 5%. Not everyone is buying this, however, and that includes plenty of Musk’s critics.
“And some researchers have said as many as half of the people on Twitter are bots,” admitted Samuel Wooley, author of Bots, in an interview with Slate back on June 13, 2022. “But I think that’s way overblown. More reasoned researchers would say it’s maybe 15 percent or 20 percent of the traffic on Twitter is bots. And we know that the majority of bots on Twitter are spam bots and are commercially motivated.”
“Commercially motivated,” i.e. advertising. And stealthy advertising at that.
What impact is this enormous, invisible undercurrent of advertising having on new public square spaces like Twitter?
Many social media users, and members of the media, don’t seem overly concerned about Musk’s million-bot questions, distracted as they are by the future social media fortunes of just one Twitter user: Donald J. Trump.
In addition, progressives are locked in an on-again, off-again love/hate relationship with Elon Musk
On the recent hand, Musk threatened to restore Donald Trump on Twitter. On the other hand, Elon Musk did much more than revolutionize the electric car; Tesla actually made electric cars cool somehow.
Celebrities may have sported the occasional Prius in the past, as a nod to environmental causes and never mind the private jet. But a Prius was never a status symbol. Tesla drove electric cars directly into the bloodstream of modern American capitalism: Conspicuous consumerism.
Hooking Americans on the empty promises of conspicuous consumerism is a feat unmatched as yet by advertisers, who hopefully will never again discover anything as detrimental to society, the planet or the human brain.
Keeping up with the Joneses is of course today “Keeping Up With the Kardashians”, who, apart from anything else, are multi-millionaires making more money in a year than the average American might see in a lifetime.
Conspicuous consumerism was supposed to make human beings happy; studies have shown time and again the irrefutable falsity of this premise.
More stuff, new and better toys, never makes us happy for very long. And like perils of heroin use, bigger and bigger price tags are needed to achieve ever diminishing returns.
Worse, there is no keeping up with the Joneses, or the Kardashians or anyone else. How ever many Teslas you manage to collect, however many pairs of Jimmy Choos or Rolex watches, someone will always have more.
Advertisers know all of this, of course, having studied nothing but the subject of human psychology and even human biology and body chemistry over the past decades in order to sell us things. They know conspicuous consumerism is as big a bogus marketing ploy as using sex appeal to sell things.
No, Virginia; buying that body spray, or sports car, or designer suit will not make you irresistible to potential dating partners; It’s all advertising.
Conspicuous consumerism is an advertiser’s favorite treadmill. Get a potential customer on one of those fast tracks and their wallets open like magic.
Just as surely as junk food companies know we like a chip with the fracture properties of a “Weibull modulus of about 4 and a characteristic strength of about 1.5 MPa”; just as assuredly as they know the precise cocktail of additives and chemicals to make junk food as addictive as cigarettes; advertisers know our weaknesses better than most of us know ourselves.
Junk food companies and their advertising cohorts may have crossed the line with mass producing chemically-addictive junk food, however.
In the future, the purveyors junk foods responsible for America’s ever-skyrocketing rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes may face a Tobacco industry-level reckoning.
When that day comes, the most damning bit of evidence will be as before; the great lengths to which these companies and advertisers went to market their unhealthy, deadly, and chemically-addictive products to kids.
Ronald McDonald, Tony the Tiger, Cap’n Crunch, Count Chocula, and the Keebler Elves may someday face a jury of their peers and ordered to pay restitution. Popeye the Sailor Man might be acquitted; he, at least, was telling the truth about spinach.
The tide may already be starting to turn. “We do not carry products marketed to children,” reads a sign at your local organic grocery store, right next to another sign scolding, “To reduce plastic waste, we stopped selling bottled water in 2003”.
A whitepaper published by Healthy Eating Research in March of 2016 entitled, “The Use of Brand Mascots and Media Characters: Opportunities or Responsible Food Marketing to Children,” is just one of thousands of similarly well-researched papers.
The findings couldn’t be more damning.
“Public health experts have consistently called on food, beverage and restaurant industry leaders to end all forms of marketing of high-calorie and nutrient-poor food and beverage products to children and adolescents to help reduce overweight and obesity rates in the United States,” the issue brief begins.
“This call aligns with the 2010 World Health Assembly Resolution and the World Health Organization’s recommendations for national governments and other stakeholders to restrict young people’s exposure to the marketing of unhealthy food and beverage products that do not meet the government-recommended dietary targets for fat, sugar, salt, and total calories,” the paper continued.
“Younger children are especially vulnerable to the marketing of unhealthy food and beverage products that use brand mascots or media characters because they have difficulty distinguishing between advertising messages and factual information,” is the second-saddest sentence in the entire 7-page paper.
“Children develop emotional bonds with brand mascots and media characters as if they were their personal friends,” is the saddest. “These relationships are based on the attractiveness of the brand mascots and media characters, and they can influence children’s food choices and diet.”
Considering the lengths to which we know advertising and marketing companies will go to increase market share, junk food companies being just one single example, Twitter bots may already be a much bigger problem than most people realize.
The most important question isn’t how many bots are on Twitter. The real question is what do all these bots want?
Who owns them? What are they being paid to do?
The American public, like Musk and any other potential investor in Twitter, deserves transparency on this issue. Even if it means, as Musk himself suggests, a potential end to anonymity on social media.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)