Op Ed

SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS: Bot or not: The public deserves to know

April 19, 2018

By Bob Hertzberg

The dawn of social media has created immense change in the lives of people all over the world – for better and, sometimes, for worse. Since the emergence of sites like Facebook and Twitter, Silicon Valley has experienced an explosion of progress and technological advancements, and in the meantime has expanded their influence in ways they could have never imagined, and likely never intended.

In the fall of 2016, news outlets began reporting a growth in the number of automated accounts – or bots – posting messages related to the major U.S. presidential candidates.

Sixteen months later, U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians and three companies, charging them with election interference that was largely executed through an army of social media bots that used fake accounts to spread misinformation. One of those companies, the Internet Research Agency, has been churning out memes, YouTube videos, Facebook posts, and Twitter accounts in an attempt to sway political campaigns and conversations around the world since at least 2013.

We now know that social media bots have been weaponized to spread fake and misleading news, lend false credibility to people and ideas, and reshape political debates.

As the New York Times recently revealed in a report detailing the underground network of followers-for-sale, we’ve also learned these bot accounts can be purchased to inflate followers for celebrities, businesses or anyone who wants to create the appearance of a large following or have influence online.

Social media platforms are highly influential to users, young and old, and can even drive traditional media cycles. Unfortunately, this influence has been exploited to negatively impact our democracy. According to a Pew Internet Center study released this week, about nine of ten tweeted links to popular news aggregation sites were posted not by human users, but by bots.

Also last week in a hearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated that fake accounts are not allowed on Facebook. But in November of last year, Facebook themselves estimated that as many as 60 million of the site’s accounts (2 to 3 percent of all accounts) were fake.

If we can’t take down these bots faster than they can reproduce, it is critical to protect users by providing the tools to understand if their information is coming from a human, or a bot account disguised as one. This is why I introduced SB 1001 in the California state Senate, a bill that sheds light on the fake accounts that simulate real people and requires them to be identified as automated accounts.

Bots, when properly identified, can exist positively in the social media ecosystem. Many entities use automated technology to share important information, like seismic activity, electronic receipts, or results of online searches.

I myself created a bot (@Bot_Hertzberg) that allows followers to see everything I tweet from my main account, and also is set up to tweet a link to a live stream whenever a hearing is about to begin in the state Senate, among other functions.

Of course, tech companies focus on those “good” bots, and not the millions that pose a risk to our democracy. And I understand that the idea of regulation poses a challenge for tech companies. They refute the idea that this should be a state issue at all, and have told me that it would be “onerous” to ask them to have bots identified.

Government is now faced with the unique challenge of encouraging progress and innovation in technology, while also protecting the users of these services.

It is clear that, despite repeated reporting of this issue in the media and high profile hearings in Congress, the problem is not going away.

Zuckerberg stated in his testimony last week that Facebook has built tools to identify when fake accounts are created, so that the company can remove them. While they may not be removing these accounts as quickly as we would like, this shows that they do know how to at least identify them.

Misinformation of our public and meddling in our elections is where policy makers must draw a line. Our democracy depends on it.

Robert Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles,  represents the 18th District in the California Senate.

Note: This piece was published in the San Jose Mercury News on April 19, 2018.