California has proposed legislation that would require social platforms like Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. to identify automated accounts, or bots, amid a push by state lawmakers to police the technology companies that have proven vulnerable to manipulation and the spread of fake news.
Bots, which can be purchased or created by individuals or organizations, have been used to inflate influence or amplify divisive opinions in politics and national tragedies. In the recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, for example, bots with suspected links to Russia released hundreds of posts to weigh in on the gun control debate. Russia-linked bots on Twitter shared Donald Trump’s tweets almost half a million times during the final months of the 2016 election campaign, compared with fewer than 50,000 retweets for Hillary Clinton’s account.
"We need to know if we are having debates with real people or if we’re being manipulated," said Democratic State Senator Bob Hertzberg, who introduced the bill. "Right now we have no law and it’s just the Wild West."
The proposed bill would would make it illegal for bots to communicate with a person in the state with "the intention of misleading and without clearly and conspicuously disclosing that the bot is not a natural person." It would require the social platforms to let people report violations, respond to those reports, and provide bimonthly details of those violations to the state Attorney General. The legislation is scheduled to go through two committees in California this month.
States — especially California, where many of the tech companies are based — are moving ahead to regulate social media in the face of slow progress from the federal government. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Democratic-dominated state Assembly are working to push through a law that would require election ads on social media to reveal the identity of the buyer. California State Assemblyman Marc Levine, a democrat, introduced a bill similar to Hertzberg’s, requiring tech companies to brand bots with a disclaimer and link those accounts and advertising purchases to "verified human accounts."
"California feels a bit guilty about how our hometown companies have had a negative impact on society as a whole,” said Shum Preston, the national director of advocacy and communications at Common Sense Media, a major supporter of Hertzberg’s bill. “We are looking to regulate in the absence of the federal government. We don’t think anything is coming from Washington."
Legislation with bipartisan support in Congress, the Honest Ads Act, has focused on regulating online election ads. The Federal Election Commission is also considering a proposal to require online ads to carry the same disclaimers from sponsors as do radio, television and print ads. California’s proposals would address the broader problem of manipulation on the technology platforms, but they would be difficult to enforce. The platforms say they can’t always easily identify what accounts are bots, as software programs become more sophisticated and mix human interactions with automation.
Recent revelations have forced Facebook and Twitter to come to grips with the extent of malicious software programs on their platforms that have real-life consequences. Researchers have estimated that as many as 15 percent of Twitter’s active accounts are bots and Facebook has estimated that as many as 150 million people were exposed to Russian propaganda through fake accounts on issues from gun rights to immigration and race relations.
Twitter has been escalating efforts to combat bots, by tweaking its algorithms and suspending more automated accounts that break the rules. Facebook and Google have also taken steps to increase transparency, including hiring more people to review content.
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