In-Depth: Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA) introduced this bill to study bots’ impact on public discourse and elections:
“Bot accounts can disseminate false information to alter public opinion with superhuman speed. There is clear evidence that bad actors used bots during the 2016 election with the sole purpose of destabilizing public discourse and undermining our elections. Despite bots’ dangers, there is still widespread disagreement on how best to regulate these accounts. Before we can effectively police this realm, we need experts to come to the table and create guidelines that protect both cybersecurity and First Amendment rights, and that can keep pace with an ever-changing innovation sector. Without this key piece of the process, we cannot safeguard our democracy.”
Prior to introducing this bill, Rep. DeSaulnier called on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to convene a hearing on the influence bots could have had on the 2016 Presidential election. In his letter, Rep. DeSaulnier called attention to both the bot business’ profitability and its potential for swaying elections:
“[Bot] companies… have made millions of dollars selling fake accounts to ‘social media influencers’ looking to spread their reach. Influencers, ranging for celebrity chefs to sports stars, pay thousands of dollars to amass hundreds of thousands of ‘followers,’ the majority of which are now known to be bots. Although seemingly innocuous, this practice can be dangerous. Bot accounts can spread false information for deceptive purposes, such as altering public opinion to sway elections, with superhuman veracity. It is essential that we understand how [bot companies] operate in order to prevent these bot accounts from destabilizing the public’s trust in our nation’s elections and undermining our national security.”
Top-ranking Democrats Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) have repeatedly demanded that Facebook and Twitter investigate whether Russian trolls and bots are still trying to “manipulate public opinion” on their sites. In January 2018, Sen. Feinstein and Rep. Schiff wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, requesting that they investigate the origins of the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag calling for the release of a Republican dossier detailing abuses of power at the FBI, which Democrats characterized as an attempt to discredit Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation:
“Several Twitter hashtags, including #ReleaseTheMemo, calling for release of these talking points attacking the Mueller investigation were born in the hours after the [House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Majority] vote [allowing House members to review the Republicans’ memo]. According to the Germany Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, this effort gained the immediate attention and assistance of social media accounts linked to Russian influence operations. By Friday, January 19, 2018, the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag was ‘the top trending hashtag among Twitter accounts believed to be operated by Kremlin-linked groups.’ Its use had ‘increased by 286,700 percent’ and was being used ‘100 times more than any other hashtag’ by accounts linked to Russian influence campaigns… If these reports are accurate, we are witnessing an ongoing attack by the Russian government through Kremlin-linked social media actors directly acting to intervene and influence our democratic process. This should be disconcerting to all Americans, but especially your companies as, once again, it appears the vast majority of their efforts are concentrated on your platforms.”
Some of President Trump’s supporters have been critical of anti-bot efforts at Twitter in particular. When Twitter suspended multiple accounts after Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals for meddling in the U.S. election by various means, including using fake Twitter accounts to conduct “information warfare” against the U.S., conservative Twitter users who lost followers accused the site of left-wing bias and censorship.
Others, including Wellesley computer science professor Takis Metaxas, argue that the bot threat may be overhyped. Metaxas says, “I don’t know of any trends, but I believe that the role and number of the malicious bots are rather exaggerated in the usual reporting.”
Of Note: Estimates suggest that roughly 48 million active Twitter users are bots. In November 2017, Facebook testified that upwards of 60 million automated accounts are on its platform. Recently, Twitter has notified 1.4 million Americans that they interacted with, or even promoted, Russian-linked activities during the 2016 Presidential election.
According a January 2018 report from Twitter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Russian bots retweeted Donald Trump nearly 500,000 times in the 10 weeks leading up to and directly after the U.S. presidential election — 10 times more than they retweeted Hillary Clinton. In total, over 50,000 Russia-connected bots sent over two million election-related tweets from September 1 to November 15, 2016, comprising approximately one percent of all tweets on Twitter during that time period. Due to this high volume of engagement with Donald Trump’s Twitter account, Russia-connect bots accounted for over four percent of his retweets, versus accounting for less than one percent of retweets for Hillary Clinton.
According to Twitter, Russia-connected bots also engaged heavily with Wikileaks, retweeting Wikileaks around 200,000 times from September 1 to November 15, 2016. They were responsible for nearly five percent of tweets using the hashtag #PodestaEmails.
In September 2017, Facebook disclosed its discovery of 3,000 ads from 470 accounts connected to a Russian bot manufacturer. Collectively, those accounts created 80,000 pieces of content that were shared with approximately 126 million people.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / marchmeena29)