Will California’s New Bot Law Strengthen Democracy ? | The New Yorker
Une loi très intéressante en Californie qui va entrer en vigueur aujourd’hui. On va voir comment cela se passe pour la déclaration du caractère robotique d’un compte Twitter ou Facebook...
California is the first state to try to reduce the power of bots by requiring that they reveal their “artificial identity” when they are used to sell a product or influence a voter.Photograph by Emma Innocenti / Getty
When you ask experts how bots influence politics—that is, what specifically these bits of computer code that purport to be human can accomplish during an election—they will give you a list: bots can smear the opposition through personal attacks; they can exaggerate voters’ fears and anger by repeating short simple slogans; they can overstate popularity; they can derail conversations and draw attention to symbolic and ultimately meaningless ideas; they can spread false narratives. In other words, they are an especially useful tool, considering how politics is played today.
On July 1st, California became the first state in the nation to try to reduce the power of bots by requiring that they reveal their “artificial identity” when they are used to sell a product or influence a voter. Violators could face fines under state statutes related to unfair competition. Just as pharmaceutical companies must disclose that the happy people who say a new drug has miraculously improved their lives are paid actors, bots in California—or rather, the people who deploy them—will have to level with their audience.
We are in new terrain, where the microtargeting of audiences on social networks, the perception of false news stories as genuine, and the bot-led amplification of some voices and drowning-out of others have combined to create angry, ill-informed online communities that are suspicious of one another and of the government.
Regulating bots should be low-hanging fruit when it comes to improving the Internet. The California law doesn’t even ban them outright but, rather, insists that they identify themselves in a manner that is “clear, conspicuous, and reasonably designed.”
The point where economic self-interest stops and libertarian ideology begins can be hard to identify. Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook, speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival last week, appealed to personal freedom to defend his platform’s decision to allow the microtargeting of false, incendiary information. “I do not think we want to go so far towards saying that a private company prevents you from saying something that it thinks is factually incorrect,” he said. “That to me just feels like it’s too far and goes away from the tradition of free expression.”
In the 2016 Presidential campaign, bots were created to support both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, but pro-Trump bots outnumbered pro-Clinton ones five to one, by one estimate, and many were dispatched by Russian intermediaries. Twitter told a Senate committee that, in the run-up to the 2016 election, fifty thousand bots that it concluded had Russian ties retweeted Trump’s tweets nearly half a million times, which represented 4.25 per cent of all his retweets, roughly ten times the level of Russian bot retweets supporting Clinton.
Bots also gave Trump victories in quick online polls asking who had won a Presidential debate; they disrupted discussions of Trump’s misdeeds or crude statements; and they relentlessly pushed dubious policy proposals through hashtags like #draintheswamp.
They have also aided Trump during his Presidency. Suspected bots created by unidentified users drove an estimated forty to sixty per cent of the Twitter discussion of a “caravan” of Central American migrants headed to the U.S., which was pushed by the President and his supporters prior to the 2018 midterm elections. Trump himself has retweeted accounts that praise him and his Presidency, and which appear to be bots. And last week a suspected bot network was discovered to be smearing Senator Kamala Harris, of California, with a form of “birtherism” after her strong showing in the first round of Democratic-primary debates.
Hertzberg, the state senator who authored the legislation, told me that he was glad that the changes to the bill before passage were related to the implementation of the law, rather than to its central purpose of requiring that bots reveal themselves to the public when used politically or commercially. A lawyer by training, Hertzberg said that he resented the accusation that he didn’t care about First Amendment concerns. “There is no effort in this bill to have a chilling effect on speech—zero,” he said. “The argument you go back to is, Do bots have free speech? People have free speech. Bots are not people.”