California has declared open season on the use of bots to try to secretly influence elections.
Legislation signed by California Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday makes it illegal to use automated online programs, or bots, to try to influence voters' opinions during an election without revealing the source's artificial nature. The law also applies to bots trying to sell merchandise or services.
Bots are everywhere in technology, ranging from search engine spiders that crawl the internet looking for new web pages, to malicious bots that come with a virus. They've also been traced to Russian attempts to sow the seeds of discontent among Americans by spreading false or deceptive information during the 2016 election.
"Bots can be -- and are often -- weaponized to spread fake and misleading news, reshape political debates, and influence advertising audiences," state Sen. Robert Hertzberg (D-Los Angeles) told CBS 13 in Sacramento. "On the internet, where the appearance of a mass audience can be monetized, 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.
"As long as bots are properly identified to let users know that they are a computer generated or automated account, users can at least be aware of who they are interacting with and judge the content accordingly," he said.
The legislation was signed as social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter still grapple with the revelation that Russian-linked social media troll accounts may have influenced the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election. A study last year from the University of Oxford showed that bots on social networks were a significant force in swaying political opinions.
Twitter told congressional investigators in January that Russian bots shared Donald Trump's tweets almost 470,000 times between Sept. 1 and Nov. 15, 2016. During that same time frame, the Russian-linked accounts retweeted candidate Hillary Clinton fewer than 50,000 times.
A summary of the new law, which goes into effect July 1, 2019, follows:
This bill would, with certain exceptions, make it unlawful for any person to use a bot to communicate or interact with another person in California online with the intent to mislead the other person about its artificial identity for the purpose of knowingly deceiving the person about the content of the communication in order to incentivize a purchase or sale of goods or services in a commercial transaction or to influence a vote in an election. The bill would define various terms for these purposes.
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