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Social media bots are a real problem and California may regulate them


Days after a New York Times investigation exposed Devumi, a company that sold Twitter users fake followers and bot retweet accounts; a California assemblyman wants the state to require these accounts be easily identified and ultimately linked to a human user.

The bill introduced by Democratic legislator Marc Levine would require a disclaimer to be displayed for automated accounts on sites such as Facebook or Twitter.

“From Big Tech to social media startups, it’s clear that self-regulation is failing society and damaging our democracy,” Levine said in a statement.

Levine said the bill would also require that any advertising purchased on social media be made by accounts verified to be controlled by an actual person.

“Sensible laws can finally bring accountability for unregulated and misleading use of social media,” Levine said.

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In December 2017, USC researchers released a study that concluded, automated social media accounts had provided questionable claims about electronic cigarettes. Significant criticisms of bots and fake social media accounts surfaced after the 2016 US Presidential election.

Last week, Twitter announced that it had notified 677,775 American Twitter users who had interacted with accounts run by a Kremlin-linked bot farm. The company also identified 50,258 Russian-linked bot accounts that tweeted around the election.

California, a liberal Democratic stronghold that is also home to Silicon Valley, usually has more comprehensive regulation of technology companies. Levine’s bill comes after the Attorney General for the Southern District of New York, Eric Schneiderman, announced an investigation into Devumi, the fake follower vendor that the New York Times had investigated.

In March 2017, researchers from USC and Indiana University said, as many as 48 million of Twitter’s reported active users — nearly 15% — are automated accounts designed to simulate real people, though the company claims that number is far lower.

In November, Facebook disclosed to investors that it had at least twice as many fake users as it previously estimated, indicating that up to 60 million bot accounts may be active on the world’s largest social media platform.

Devumi the fake follower factory

Earlier this week a New York Times report profiled Devumi, a company which purports to increase one’s social media presence on Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, or LinkedIn among others. The NYT report alleged that Devumi sells fake followers to Twitter users, sometimes using details based on real people, including minors. In its investigation, the newspaper says that companies like Devumi have provided customers with “more than 200 million Twitter followers,” at least 55,000 of which “use the names, profile pictures, hometowns and other personal details of real Twitter users.”

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The report also examined Devumi’s customers, which includes actors, politicians, and influencers who rely on bots – who retweet an like their posts – to increase their social media footprint. The report adds that there are a number of companies that provide fake followers to paying customers, these companies take advantage of platforms that lend themselves well to fake accounts. Twitter doesn’t require a real identity to create an account, and while the company says that it works to eliminate accounts that post spam, former employees say that the companies have not paid much attention to the issue.

India also has a Twitter bot problem

The cauldron of national politics brought the issue of Twitter bots to the forefront last year when members of the ruling BJP accused Congress President Rahul Gandhi of using bots to improve his social media footprint. A claim that denied by the Congress’ leadership.

In October 2017, a report on the Hindustan Times covered the usage of Twitter bots in India. Quoting a purported bot farm insider the HT report said, a lot of celebrities, social media influencers and even politicians pay for these bots to expand their presence.

Speaking about how they evade Twitter’s attention the alleged insider said, “If you see, these bots/accounts are pretty much active. They behave like real accounts. Twitter has to find something suspicious to scrutinise the account. Most people who are controlling these bots never let that situation come.”

“We have subscription plan-sorts. For your requirement, we will charge around Rs 1,000 to 1,500 per day or Rs 30,000 to 45,000 per month. These are prices for bulk orders but may vary on a day to day basis,” he added.

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Writes about consumer technology, social media, digital services and tech policy. Is a gadget freak, gamer and Star Wars nerd.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.



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