This month, California became the first state to require bots to openly identify as automated online accounts.
On July 1, nine months after being signed into law, California’s SB 1001—the “Bolstering Online Transparency,” or B.O.T. bill—came into effect. The new rule requires all bots that attempt to influence California residents’ voting or purchasing behaviors to conspicuously declare themselves. The owner or creator of the bot is responsible for prominently designating the account as automated; the platform itself is off the hook. (To see what the law might look like in practice, visit @Bot_Hertzberg—a bot created by SB 1001 author and California Senator Bill Hertzberg to showcase the need for the new rule. “I AM A BOT,” its Twitter bio reads. “Automated accounts like mine are made to misinform & exploit users.”)
Bots have been used to mislead users; to artificially inflate follower counts, likes, and retweets; and to manufacture consensus on divisive issues. In 2015 and 2016, they were frequently used to make topics trend on Twitter, creating the false impression that certain stories were of great importance. To its supporters, the bot law is a respite in a time of online chaos, a sorely needed defense against the disinformation, misinformation, and filter bubbles that exist on today’s sprawling social media platforms. For regulators, it’s a chance to do something—to make social media manipulation less of a free-for-all—as the US heads into another election.
But upon deeper inspection, California’s bot bill is hollow. It’s flashy