In February, Twitter announced it had 319 million monthly active users worldwide, or just slightly under the number of every person in the United States.
But of those 319 million, as many as 48 million aren’t actually real, according to a study conducted by researchers from the University of Southern California: They’re just software programs, designed to do everything a normal person on Twitter would do, including following other accounts and liking and retweeting certain messages.
Those accounts, called “bots,” can range from accounts dedicated to alerting their followers about emergencies to political advocates intended to boost the numbers of a programmer’s preferred candidate.
“Many bot accounts are extremely beneficial, like those that automatically alert people of natural disasters … or from customer service points of view,” a Twitter spokesperson told CNBC.
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However, there are also plenty of fake accounts. Because a person’s number of Twitter followers is often seen as indicative of how popular and powerful that person is, there are services that allow people to buy followers, and quite often those services use bots as part of their service.
Twitter has acknowledged the existence of bots in the past and has attempted to crack down on them, suspending accounts they believe are not human. However, as CNBC reports, the USC study goes far beyond what Twitter itself has claimed about the number of bots on its platform. In February, Twitter estimated in a SEC filing that up to 8.5 percent of its users were not human, while the USC study’s authors say even its estimate of 15 percent is “conservative.”
And those bots account are not all just related to customer service and public safety. The same researchers produced another study in November estimating that over a month-long period between Sept. 16 and Oct. 21, 19 percent of all election-related tweets were generated by bots, per CBS News.
Twitter, of course, is not the only social media platform that has to deal with bots. Facebook could have up to 170 million fake accounts, according to the Huffington Post, and Instagram could have as many as 45 million of its own, per Business Insider.