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How the porn bots took over Twitter

Illustration by Jackie Lay/NPR

The routine of a loyal X (formerly known as Twitter) user remains relatively simple.

You open the app and scroll to see what The Discourse is for the day. Someone's thought entices you enough to prompt a glance at the replies.

But as you expand, you are suddenly flooded with throngs of desperate, half-naked women urging you to click their ░L░I░N░K░I░N░B░I░O░. The accounts themselves are usually barren of original posts, with a stolen image as the profile picture and a spammy link to a webcam site in their bio.

Oftentimes they don't have anything else on their profile. Sometimes they have a poetic musing about their interests, like, "I am looking for sex, but do you want?"

Twitter has long had a bot problem, but since moderation on the platform was gutted and paid users were given "prioritization" in replies, the landscape has changed. It's just one sign of the wider decay of social media platforms that's playing out right now.

How Twitter morphed

It's tempting for critics to say Twitter's problems began after Elon Musk acquired the company in 2022. But Jasmine Enberg, a principal analyst covering social media and the creator economy at Emarketer (previously named Insider Intelligence), says that the platform's woes predated their polarizing owner.

"[Musk] acquired Twitter at a time when the digital ad market was in a slump due to the economic slowdown," she said, adding that in times of economic uncertainty, companies cut back on brand advertising and also spending on platforms that are deemed less essential. "And Twitter checked both of those boxes."

Still, Enberg said that Musk's unconventional leadership style and outspoken views on just about everything accelerated the platform's difficulty with securing sustainable advertising, with the biggest corporations jumping ship at the first sign of a brand ethos that could reflect poorly on their bottom line.

"Musk gave advertisers a reason to leave Twitter," she said. "And what we've seen over the past few months is that he's given them reason and reason to continue to stay away."

On the business side, Musk dissolved the Trust and Safety Council and cut staff overseeing content moderation — two things Enberg said were vital for keeping the platform safe for advertisers and users.

"Now, again, Twitter didn't necessarily have the best track record [with misinformation and bots], but advertisers believed that Twitter was on their side and working hard to combat those problems," Enberg said. "And that's not the case anymore."

And as cuts to content moderation coincided with the introduction of profile boosting for paid users, a pathway for those persistent porn bots begging for you to check out their digital giblets became so noticeable that it inspired its own brand of memes.

This feeling of Twitter's transformation isn't just imagined; according to an analysis by Emarketer, X's ad revenue declined 54% in 2023.

The platform was forecast to make $1.89 billion in ad revenue in 2023, according to Emarketer — a figure that Enberg said pushes X's ad business back to numbers from 2015.

"There are a lot of questionable ads on X now, which is a clear indication that those big brands aren't coming back anytime soon," she said. "And that means that to find a new advertiser base, it's been courting political advertisers and small and medium-sized businesses."

"I imagine that we're going to continue to see a lot of questionable ads across Twitter, and that is really damaging to the user experience."

X/Twitter has undergone major changes since Elon Musk took over.
Sergei Gapon / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
X/Twitter has undergone major changes since Elon Musk took over.

X user data from the U.S. shows that despite the turbulence on the platform for the past several years, usage among most age groups has remained relatively consistent.

One notable change is that the average time spent on the platform has increased dramatically among men ages 18 to 24, according to data compiled by Measure Protocol — rising from about 90 minutes a week in July 2022 to 157 minutes in 2024.

NPR requested an interview with an X representative for this story but did not hear back.

Understanding "ens***ification"

While Twitter has morphed in a spectacular and public fashion, it isn't some uniquely beleaguered corner of the internet that is suddenly spammier than ever before.

For years now, users and tech reporters have observed what they say is the real-time decay of websites, social media platforms and search engines. Put simply, the internet sucks more now.

Cory Doctorow, a tech journalist and science fiction writer, coined the term "ens***ification" as a way to describe how many of the places we populate online have been getting worse and how users aren't given many alternatives.

Doctorow spoke with NPR's Ari Shapiro in December about the life cycles of apps and the death spiral of the user experience. The fate of Facebook, for example, can provide some insight into what the future might hold, he said.

"They started off by offering a really good deal to their end users. They said, 'Hey, leave Myspace — come to Facebook. It's just like Myspace, except we only show you the things that you ask to see and we'll never spy on you,'" Doctorow said.

"And then once those users were locked in — because once you're in a place with all your friends, it's really hard to leave — they started to take away some of that good stuff they gave them, and they handed it to advertisers and publishers."

Except that advertisers and publishers weren't getting a great deal either, according to Doctorow, who said that once they too were locked in, the ads got more expensive. And publishers had to post more of their content — not just to get recommended but even to be shown to the people who subscribed to them.

"And that's the final stage," Doctorow said. "This stage where there's just only the residual value left on the platform that the platform owner thinks will keep the users, and the business customers they bring in, stuck to the platform. And that's when we're at the beginning of the end."

The next chapter for apps

The late aughts to today have been characterized by a relatively seamless transition of power from one big platform to another, starting on a Myspace wall and spanning all the way to winding TikTok tales of infidelity.

But there has yet to be a Twitter successor that has been deemed worthy enough for mass migration, despite all the skeets and toots made for that effort. Max Chafkin, a senior reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek and a co-host of the podcast Elon, Inc., posits that we may have gone beyond a moment of peak app saturation and that it has been coming for quite some time.

"During the pandemic, people spent much larger amounts of time online," he said. "And there was this sudden spike in all of these online businesses. And not just social networks, but online retail, news and pretty much anything that happened in front of the computer. And then it kind of fell off a cliff, and that was surprising."

Chafkin, who wrote a piece about how the next big app might be just nothing, says that social media companies gambled on the idea of endless growth and the idea that people would always be comfortable with spending a third of their days racking up screen time.

"The more time people spend on [social media], the more money the companies make. And so as a result, they're all maximizing for engagement. So this leads to a cultural problem, and then there's maybe a business problem," he said.

Chafkin asserts what other experts have warned about: that maximizing engagement by any means possible leads algorithms to amplify content that is the most enraging and controversial, because it keeps users online, regardless of how that screen time affects their well-being. But he also argues that this isn't just bad for our collective consciousness — it's also not a sustainable business model.

"If that's all you have on there, then what you have is not very valuable at all," he said. "Obviously, these social media companies are famously good at getting us to do what they want to do on their apps, but there are limits to it. And I think we're seeing those limits in all sorts of ways."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Manuela López Restrepo
Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.