Capital Public Radio

California Lawmaker Hopes Bot Bill Sheds Light On Fake Social Media Accounts

February 5, 2018

By Chris Nichols

Social media companies such as Twitter would be required to identify automated accounts, known as bots, under a new bill scheduled to be introduced in the California Legislature this week.

Democratic state Sen. Bob Hertzberg of Los Angeles said his bill would not ban bots. Instead, it would shed light on the fake accounts that simulate real people and spread waves of false information across their platforms, the lawmaker said.

Some bots masquerade as real people and increasingly target social media users with political propaganda and commercial products.

“In politics, we saw it in the presidential election — influencing the impact of what support people have or don’t have, [and] how that gets reported,” Hertzberg told Capital Public Radio. “It’s just wrong at every level. Tell the truth, that’s what this is all about.”

Hertzberg’s office cited a recent study that estimated as much as 15 percent of Twitter accounts are bots.

Digital literacy

Shum Preston of Common Sense Kids Action, which advocates for digital literacy for children, said his organization supports the bill because young people are particularly at risk.

“This is a key educational problem that we’re facing,” Preston said. “We want kids to be able to recognize [fake accounts] and we want them to have the tools to assess this information and the ads that they’re seeing online.”

Preston said kids often don’t know how to distinguish between political propaganda and real news. Some bots, he said, are bolstered by artificial intelligence and attempt to build relationships with children before pitching products.

“The idea that there’s going to be a company that pays for an artificial intelligence service to simulate friendship online with my child in order to sell a commercial product, I mean, that is all kinds of wrong,” Preston added.

Supporters of the bill recognize California won’t be able to regulate the entire social media landscape. At the very least, they want to start a conversation about the fake accounts.

Social media companies have been criticized for not doing more to stop automated accounts that spread false information. Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s general counsel, responded in a letter to recent concerns from Congress by saying the company continues “to strengthen our fight against malicious automation.”

The attorney added that Twitter has created a “dedicated Information quality team,” which focuses on detecting and stopping “bad automation.”


Hertzberg, in an effort to highlight the fake accounts, has created a bot @Bot_Hertzberg. It’s a self-identified automated Twitter account.

In a press release, the lawmaker said the bot “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.”

Hertzberg also cited a New York Times report this month that revealed 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.


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