Hot on the trail of the ‘bots’

A robot typing on a keyboard, a photo illustration depicting automated content. (Image: Mopic, via Shutterstock)

What’s in a name? When it comes to social media, maybe a lot more than you think.

There is a move in the Capitol to force social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook to identify “bots,” those robot-like, automated accounts that move through the internet and interact with real people — and each other.

The legislation is being pushed on the heels of several studies that indicate a massive proliferation of online bots.

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg’s SB 1001 would prevent digital bots from impersonating a human and require holders of bot accounts to disclose that the account is not actually a human. Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, has dubbed the bill the B.O.T Act of 2018, for Bolstering Online Transparency.

“We have seen an explosion in the use of these bots,” Hertzberg testified at an April 16 Senate hearing. “It’s manifested itself in so many areas. There are companies out there hired by celebrities to build up their social media [accounts] […] Most importantly, we’ve seen it in our elections.”

Hertzberg says he is targeting the identification of social media accounts posing as humans. SB 1001, he contends, doesn’t hinder the use of bots in more useful ways, such as bots that give warnings for earthquakes.

The legislation is being pushed on the heels of several studies that show a massive proliferation of online bots.

Research from the University of Southern California and Indiana University estimated that bots represent between 9% and 15% of Twitter’s English-speaking population.

“Technology, on the one hand, offers an extraordinary benefit to so many. On the other hand, it’s been abused.” — Bob Hertzberg

An estimated 66% of links to popular websites are shared by bots rather than human users, according to a study by the Pew Research Center for Internet and Technology. The study didn’t find any significant political bias in the link-sharing.

A New York Times investigation delved into in the influence of an American company called Devumi, which has sold millions of fake social media hits to people around the globe. The company has provided customers with over 200 million followers, costing less than a penny each in many cases according to the investigation.

In November, Facebook admitted that as many as 60 million accounts were bots, about 2%-to-3% of all accounts.

Hertzberg sees bot regulation as essential to media and internet literacy.

“Technology, on the one hand, offers an extraordinary benefit to so many. On the other hand, it’s been abused. What we’re trying to do is come up with reasonable regulations based on disclosure,” he said.

Some policy experts don’t think the solution is as simple as Hertzberg thinks it is.

Libertarian author Steven Greenhut, western region director at the R Street Institute, wants the California Legislature to stay out of bot regulation entirely and let the tech-experts take care of the issue.

“Government has an important role in battling fraud and internet crime, but it’s naïve to believe that the California Legislature can fix with a few paragraphs what the leaders in the industry are struggling to control,” Greenhut wrote in a guest commentary for the Orange County Register.

The state Senate isn’t the only sector of the Capitol trying to do something about social media bots.

Assemblymember Marc Levine, a Marin County Democrat, recently introduced AB 1950, which would also require social media bots to identify with a disclaimer, but departs from Hertzberg’s bill in that it requires social media advertising purchases be made by human accounts.

Hertzberg has created a self-identified bot Twitter account, @Bot_Hertzberg, to spread awareness about the bill and show what a verified social media bot looks like.

His bill, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 24, is scheduled to be heard this month by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Ed’s Note: Dylan Svoboda is a Capitol Weekly intern from the University of California, Davis. 

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