There isn’t a tweeting human behind every Twitter (TWTR) account, and the number of automated accounts in existence is a bit of a mystery. News website Quartz has come up with a figure, citing numbers buried in a recent regulatory filing: As many as 23 million accounts are manned by bots. According to Twitter, however, Quartz got it wrong.
Before wading into the Twitter bot dispute, a quick definition: Bots are accounts whose tweets are sent automatically. Bots can churn out spam or comedy—this account randomly combines news headlines into tweets that say such things as “Iraq Brings Back Chicken Fries After Diners Complain”—or they can be public-service messages. (This account sends out alerts about Securities and Exchange Commission filings.)
Twitter is basically comfortable with most of these automated accounts; only spam bots are actively pursued and shut down by the company. Twitter claims that fewer than 5 percent of its active accounts are false or spam accounts, meaning that, at most, there are 13.5 million spam accounts. This number has stayed constant since Twitter first began disclosing spam activity as part of its public filings.
The microblogging site acknowledges that its figures rely on guesswork, and some people estimate that the bot number is much higher. The company said in its quarterly report on Monday that:
“[A]pproximately 8.5% of all active users used third party applications that may have automatically contacted our servers for regular updates without any discernable [sic] additional user-initiated action.”
Quartz took this to mean that 23 million accounts were generating tweets with no human input. Twitter says that its number counts the accounts that automatically pulled content in from Twitter, not those that use software to tweet; its census counts people who use Twitter accounts solely to populate such things as a Flipboard feed. An additional six million people use Twitter only via services that allow people to tweet automatically, in the way that Instagram (FB) will send your posts to Twitter from within its own app.
So Twitter’s disclosure isn’t about a bot headcount. Nor is it something Twitter can be completely sanguine about, either. These 23 million users never visit Twitter, which means they never see any of the advertisements that the company counts on for almost 90 percent of its revenue. Twitter makes no money from their activity. The company has acknowledged that this is a potential concern, especially if the proportion of users that enjoy their tweets filtered through an intermediary grows.
At some point, Twitter may look for a way to make some money from users who don’t see its ads. Still, you could argue that the company already makes money from bots because many of them create content that real people want to see. Just how many bots are out there remains a mystery.