Back in April, in response to the news that the Tesla and SpaceX founder was mulling an offer to buy Twitter, I argued that Elon Musk was a master of pseudo-events. “Musk commandeers the attention, legions speculate,” I wrote. “But ultimately we end up where we started. The only winner is Musk.”
It’s three months later, and we are, in so many ways, back where we started. Musk is trying to pull out of the deal, arguing through his lawyers that Twitter is not being cooperative and that he believes the platform is not being honest about the number of bots and spam accounts. If you’re interested in the particulars of Musk’s justifications and what the legal battle between Twitter and Musk might look like, you can read more at length about it here. But I’d like to talk about Elon Musk’s obsession with bots and how it actually illustrates the ways he is an extremely shallow thinker when it comes to online dynamics.
In short, Elon’s bot obsession is like Facebook-addled Boomer behavior.
Musk’s bot excuse is obvious bullshit. As Bloomberg’s Matt Levine noted over the weekend, “there is not a whisper of evidence [for the bot claim], no hint that there might be evidence, no acknowledgement that a reasonable reader of this letter might want to see evidence.” That said, Musk is clearly obsessed with the notion that Twitter is riddled with inauthentic accounts and that the glut of bots poses some kind of existential threat to the service. Here he is back in April, suggesting bot clean-up as one of his motivations for purchasing the company (lol):
There are some obvious reasons Musk is so interested in fake accounts, the first being that he has more than 100 million followers on the platform, which means that, based on pure scale, he has a lot of non-human accounts following him. A recent article in Slate said that “by some estimates, more than two-thirds of Elon Musk’s Twitter followers are bots or spam accounts.” (Other estimates put it closer to 20 percent, which I’d venture is more reasonable.) Either way, that’s a lot of accounts, and Musk, a terminally addicted Twitter user, likely sees a lot of weird stuff when he checks his mentions. Things like this happen, where some bad actors flood the replies to stories about Musk with the same style of tweet:
I understand how that might be frustrating, even enraging, especially when the replies are directed at Musk’s family. But Musk’s experience on Twitter is going to be very different from that of the vast majority of users, because most people (even Twitter power users) only have a few hundred or a few thousand followers. Elon’s interest in bots is less of an altruistic concern about the health of the digital town square and more of an attempt to speak to the manager—it’s his own Twitter experience that is degraded, because, post-Trump, he is arguably its most famous user.
If you’ve ever had a tweet go viral, you likely know that it is one of the worst experiences the platform offers. You become the dog that caught the car, and your replies are clogged with (mostly real) people you don’t know screaming and fighting about things that, after a while, have very little to do with you or your tweet. It’s very hard to separate the signal from the (again, mostly real and human) noise. This is every tweet and reply for Musk. It’s likely a nightmare experience, albeit an authentic one.
I would venture a guess that it’s not the bot stuff that really grinds Musk’s gears. I don’t deny that he’s encountering automated crap on the regular, but the truth about bots is that they aren’t very sophisticated. Bots are, by nature, a volume game. Their utility is to flood the zone momentarily and render mentions or threads useless for a short time. They can briefly artificially inflate a hashtag or name and get it to trend. This is annoying, and in certain instances it can definitely have a negative effect. An automated harassment campaign can temporarily silence somebody or get something awful or hurtful or defamatory to trend. But Twitter has also gotten much better at stamping out these automated accounts. In the case of the Elon bot campaign I mentioned above, by the time Musk was alerted to the attack, Twitter had suspended many of the offending accounts. Twitter was able to do this because most bots don’t behave like humans, and so they’re easy to report and stop.
But Musk remains obsessed with the bots. Specifically, he’s obsessed with who might be behind specific bot campaigns:
Sometimes, Musk seems concerned about real inauthentic-account issues, like crypto scams. But more often than not, he reaches for the bot excuse when he sees something he doesn’t like or doesn’t understand. It’s an easy conspiracy theory to go to:
This is a kind of paranoia that’s often attributed to a crude trope of internet user: It’s politics-obsessed Facebook Boomer behavior. (Yes, I agree the trope is ageist and not always precise; it is also the internet parlance for a specific type of behavior, so I’m using it here as a shorthand.) As the unflattering stereotype goes, these people are aggressively online but generally not internet-savvy enough to understand why certain things are happening. They are addicted to fighting with other people on social media, and they share information uncritically or without verifying it. When they encounter pushback or see things in their feeds they cannot explain, they tend to lean on a conspiratorial excuse of shadowy information manipulators. They blame bots!
Musk likes to think of himself as a plugged-in, savvy consumer of internet culture. (He likes making 4/20 jokes and making stupid cryptocurrencies go up with his tweets, just like the kids!) But Musk’s online behavior isn’t like that of a Zoomer or a Millennial or even a Gen Xer. Musk’s posts are much more like the stereotype of a Facebook-addled Boomer. He’s terminally addicted to a platform that provides him with a steady stream of content that angers him and polarizes his politics. He loves to share trite, old meme formats. This one from over the weekend would be right at home on some spammy Facebook page:
Other times, he just blatantly steals memes from people without giving them credit. Musk is also not above falling for and sharing viral information that fits with his particular ideology but is too good to be true, like he did here:
But it’s his obsession with inauthentic accounts that feels most in line with the Boomer stereotype. Online, people have always blamed behaviors they don’t understand or can’t explain on some kind of unseen, nefarious online mechanics. Back in the days of message boards, aggressive users who’d alienated themselves from the community would cry that they’d been shadowbanned by moderators instead of, you know, grappling with the consequences of their own behavior (this is also a favorite tactic of MAGA influencers on Twitter).
Shadowbanning is real, of course, but rarely as prevalent as the outraged would like to believe. But it is a convenient excuse, and blaming bots is a similar dynamic. After the 2016 election—in a frenzied race to understand the ways that social media was influencing and even shaping our politics—government organizations, news outlets, academics, and random Twitter sleuths began to obsess over disinformation. They often settled on a simple explanation for viral political propaganda: Russian bots. But, as I wrote with Miriam Elder, in 2018, the Russian-bot narrative was usually wildly overblown, and much of the “proof” could be traced back to an online dashboard run by the German Marshall Fund that monitored a mere 600 Twitter accounts. When we spoke to one of the researchers who ran that dashboard, even they admitted, “I’m not convinced on this bot thing.”