Bill would require digital bots, often credited with spreading misinformation, to be identified on social media sites
SACRAMENTO – Senator Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, introduced legislation Friday with the support of Common Sense Kids Action to take steps to protect Internet users from the spread of false information and misleading social media accounts. The bill, which will be introduced in the Senate next week, would require that automated accounts – or bots – be identified on social media sites.
Californians are increasingly targeted with commercial, political or other messages carried by automated accounts masquerading as actual human beings. When used in large numbers, these fake accounts, known as bots, can help sway advertising audiences and reshape political debates through the false credibility, and popularity, they lend to ideas or users. Currently, social media companies do not identify the presence of bot accounts.
“Digital bots are used by individuals, companies, and others to spread information and simulate credibility, without any inkling of who might be behind it,” said Sen. Hertzberg. “It can be extremely difficult for an individual to determine when he or she is interacting with a bot, because they often appear just like any other person. We must equip users with the tools to understand where their information is coming from.”
Senator Bob Hertzberg, in an effort to highlight the issue, has created a bot, @Bot_Hertzberg. The Twitter account is a self-identified automated account. It will create automated posts, based on modern research, to explain why this bill is important and to demonstrate that bots, when properly identified, can exist positively in the social media ecosystem.
Used negatively, however, bots can have significant consequences for our democracy. These bots can lend false credibility to the messages they put out, and some have been used to degrade the quality of the news and information online by pushing coordinated fake messages, for example.
“Bots are the cyberbullies of our democracy,” said James P. Steyer, Founder and CEO of Common Sense. “We are proud to have been working with Senator Hertzberg over the past month on a comprehensive crackdown on this deceptive and downright dangerous digital practice.”
Online environments do currently prohibit the ability of users to purchase followers. However, a New York Times report this month revealed that not only do companies sell bots as followers, but there exists a global market of fake social media accounts that have been sold to companies, political candidates, and entertainment icons to simulate larger spheres of influence for these users. The Times report concluded that, “Twitter now hosts vast swaths of unused accounts, including what are probably dormant accounts controlled by bot makers.” A 2017 study confirms this estimate, concluding that as many as 15% of Twitter accounts are bots.
“We just want users to know up front whether the information they are receiving is from a real person, and if the users they follow have legitimate followers,” said Hertzberg. “This attack on information is serious, and we must find a solution.”