The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent a report to Congress regarding the use of social media bots in online advertising, in an effort to challenge fraudulent ad metrics, combat manipulation services, and increase accountability and transparency.
The report stated that research indicates that the “market for social media bots is thriving and out in the open, and that it remains easy, cheap, and effective to sell, buy, and use these bots for commercial purposes.” Furthermore, the bots can be used for a variety of purposes, “both good and malicious,” that “range from simple to sophisticated,” and that “can be difficult to detect despite the continuing efforts of platforms, researchers, and others to combat them.”
The report describes the market for these bots and the FTC’s previous enforcement activity and authority in this domain and other related domains, such as “inauthentic online activity.” This activity also includes automated programs on social media mimicking the activity of a real person. Additionally, the report pointed to the FTC’s case against Devumi, “a company that sold fake followers, likes, and subscribers on social media accounts.” The legal and regulatory framework is based on the FTC Act’s “prohibition on unfair and deceptive acts and practices.”
Commissioner Rohit Chopra highlighted the importance of the report and bots by focusing on the bots’ role in the COVID-19 pandemic. “Social media platforms have become a vehicle to sow social divisions within our country through sophisticated disinformation campaigns,” Chopra stated. “Much of this spread of intentionally false information relies on bots and fake accounts. Indeed, a recent analysis of 200 million tweets discussing COVID-19 showed that nearly half of the tweets behaved like bots.” Chopra added that social media platforms cannot be trusted to police this issue because the platforms’ “core incentives do note align with this goal” because “[s]ocial media bots benefit platforms by spreading content that boosts engagement,” which can influence advertisement spending.
As a result, the Commissioner concluded that “[w]e cannot simply rely on the platforms to police themselves, given the incentives inherent to their business model. The FTC’s authority to prohibit deceptive acts and practices is one way to tackle the harms posed to our economy, democracy, and national security. But, of course, policymakers around the world must do more.”
The Commission voted 4-0-1 to issue the report to the Senate Committee on Appropriations.