Bloomberg: Davey Alba

New Twitter Inc. owner Elon Musk has outsourced several controversial decisions — like whether to reinstate former US President Donald Trump’s account, and if he should leave the Twitter CEO job — to public polling on the network, saying he intends to follow the will of the people. But the results of such surveys can be easily gamed by bots, according to new research.

With less than $100, one can buy tens of thousands of votes for Twitter polls using bot-for-hire manipulation services, according to the nonprofit digital rights group Accountable Tech. The finding, first reported by Bloomberg, could spark new concerns about Musk’s reliance on the tool to chart the future of one of the world’s most influential social media companies.

Musk spent months before the acquisition claiming that Twitter’s user numbers were fraudulent due to the preponderance of bots on the platform; lately he has been claiming the problem is resolved. He has said overall user numbers have gone up under his leadership.

There’s no evidence the number of bots has decreased, though. “Not only are bots flourishing under Musk, it’s now easier than ever to use bots to manipulate Twitter polls,” said Nicole Gill, co-founder and executive director of Accountable Tech. “As long as Musk continues to put major platform decisions in the hands of anyone with a few dollars and some spare time, Twitter is unsafe and open to manipulation by bad actors — including foreign governments.”

Polls can be used for trivial matters, like helping decide what to eat for dinner. Musk uses them to determine Twitter’s fate, which gives for-hire services a greater incentive to learn how to manipulate the feature. “Typically, key business decisions such as whether or not a CEO should lead a company are decided by boards and stockholders — not Twitter polls,” said Lisa Kaplan, chief executive of Alethea, which helps corporations mitigate the threat of misinformation. “If this form of decision-making continues, it’s likely that polls could be a target for actors seeking to manipulate the platform.”

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