By Lisa Levine and Brooklyn Levine Sapozhnikov, California MLN state chapter co-chairs
The Bot disclosure bill – the first of its kind in the US – is now at the California governor’s desk. Beginning July 1, 2019 this bill would prohibit a person from using a bot to communicate or interact with another person in California online with the intent to mislead.
Bots can be used to spread misinformation and we agree that it is important to disclose whether information is being provided by a bot or a person. As the author states, “As long as bots are properly identified to let users know that they are a computer generated or automated account, users can at least be aware of who they are interacting with and judge the content accordingly.”
We feel that providing information to online users about the use of bots is a positive step towards Media Literacy. However, we are concerned that relying on government oversight of this activity should not take the place of a well conceived Media Literacy educational program. Our hope is that this legislation does not undermine efforts of Media Literacy advocates. Our ultimate goal is to use education to develop a media savvy generation that can think critically about all types of media that they encounter and make informed decisions on their own behalf about the media they consume.
More about the bill:
The bill, introduced by Senator Bob Hertzberg, would prohibit a person from using a bot to communicate or interact with another person in California online with the intent to mislead the other person about its artificial identity for the purpose of knowingly deceiving the person about the content of the communication in order to incentivize a purchase or sale of goods or services in a commercial transaction or to influence a vote in an election.
The bill defines a bot as an automated online account where the actions or posts on that account are not the result of a person. When interacting with bots online users may not be able to tell if they are interacting with a bot or a person.
The number of automated users on social media sites continues to grow. A 2017 study by the University of Southern California and Indiana University found that an estimated 48 million users, or 15 percent of Twitter’s active users at the time, were automated accounts. In November 2017, Facebook disclosed to investors that up to 60 million bots may be on the site.
Bots can be used to increase the perception of popularity of people, products and services online. In January 2018, the New York Times published an article, “The Follower Factory,” detailing an emerging market where those seeking to increase the perception of popularity online can purchase followers and “likes to add to their social media accounts from these new bot companies.
Common Sense Kids Action is in support of this bill and notes that teens and children are “at risk of being targeted with unlabeled bots on [social media] platforms” which “are more likely to carry harmful messages: political propaganda, ethnic discrimination, or just false information.” SB 1001 allows users to report these unlabeled bots and requires entities behind bots to clearly identify automated accounts.”
The opponents of this bill, the California Chamber of Commerce, California Grocers Association, CompTIA, CTIA, Data and Marketing Association, Internet Association, Internet Coalition, and TechNet oppose the bill on the grounds that certain parts are vague and the bill places burdens on operators of websites and applications and could diminish the speed of impacted websites, while failing to stop bad actors. According to the Assembly Appropriations Committee, this bill will result in costs in the tens of thousands of dollars to the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute violations.
Currently there are no other states that require the disclosure of bots.