The recent news of Elon Musk acquiring Twitter and taking the high-profile social network private seems like ancient history all of a sudden. A lot has happened since the news broke, but the main point of discussion around the deal has been the presence of bots and fake users on Twitter’s platform. Twitter reportedly claimed that only 5% of its user base was fake, while Musk claimed it could be northward of 20%. In the meantime, the deal has been put on hold until this crucial data point is clarified.

But Twitter isn’t unique. In fact, around 40% of global web traffic is fake.

While Twitter is being singled out over the high-profile takeover bid, there’s nothing new about the ‘Fake Web’. A conservative estimate has the global rate of bots and fake users at around 40% of all web traffic. This includes botnets, scrapers, crawlers, proxies, automation tools, click farms, scammers and more. The internet in that sense has become the Wild West, and we can see the results of this all the time. PayPal just recently admitted to 4.5 million fake accounts in their systems. A recent report from CHEQ has shown that the internet is now nearing half a billion fake online shoppers. Any way you look at it, the ‘Fake Web’ is massive, and Twitter is not alone on this front.

So, is Musk right? Do bots make up 20% of Twitter’s base? In short – most likely, yes.

Elon Musk claimed his team was going to perform a random scan of 100 Twitter followers to check for bots and fake spam accounts. At CHEQ, we weren’t so sure 100 users was a sufficient sample size, so we examined 5.2 million site visits which originated from Twitter. Every visit was analyzed with over 2,000 JavaScript-based cybersecurity challenges to validate the visitor’s authenticity. What we found was that 12% of all users coming from Twitter were bots, fake users, and automation tools. In reality, this means that the actual rate of fake users on Twitter is likely higher than 12%, considering that many of the fake users never click through to external sites.

Credit: CHEQ

Why is this happening, and what’s the incentive for fake activity?

Bots and fake users operate for many different reasons. First off, it’s important to remember that not all bots are bad. There are legitimate scrapers and crawlers used to index web pages and collect data, operated by search engines and web aggregators. But then there is a large portion of online bot activity which is driven by less ‘pure’ motives. There are sophisticated botnets, for example, used for high-velocity cyber-attacks. These often engage with real websites and platforms like Twitter to mimic human behaviour and show they have a “history” like that of a real human user. There are malicious scrapers used to collect and sell data on the dark web, and there are automation tools used to perform human-like actions at scale, driving various types of fraud. Then of course there are illegitimate human users, like Click Farm operators, who are hired to click, like, engage and comment on social media posts, ads, and web pages. The reasons for bots and fake users to operate are almost infinite, and there is no shortage of incentives.

So, what kind of an effect do bots and fake users have on our online world?

Ultimately, the presence of fake traffic on our social media platforms, websites and eCommerce is a strategic threat to the internet. If reviews on a major eCommerce site are being driven by bots, then we can’t trust that site and won’t do business with it. If news being distributed on a social media platform is being promoted by fake spam accounts, then we lose confidence in the press and media. If companies are spending millions doing online business, selling products, and running marketing campaigns, only to find out that the activity they are generating is coming from fake users, then they will struggle to do business online. Already today, the ‘Fake Web’ accounts for 40% of the internet, and data shows that this is only getting worse. Automation tools are becoming more sophisticated, scammers are getting smarter, and the incentive keeps rising as more and more business is being conducted online. Perhaps the largest contribution of the Musk takeover bid to humanity will be spotlighting the threat of the ‘Fake Web’ and helping prioritize this as one of the pressing issues of our time.

Written by Guy Tytunovich, Founder and CEO of CHEQ

Credit: Cloud Business Photography