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Do Social Media Bots Have a Right To Free Speech?

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One study found that 66% of tweets with links were posted by "suspected bots" -- with an even higher percentage for certain kinds of content. Now a new California law will require bots to disclose that they are bots. But does that violate the bots' freedom of speech, asks Laurent Sacharoff, a law professor at the University of Arkansas. "Even though bots are abstract entities, we might think of them as having free speech rights to the extent that they are promoting or promulgating useful information for the rest of us," Sacharoff says. "That's one theory of why a bot would have a First Amendment free speech right, almost independent of its creators." Alternatively, the bots could just be viewed as direct extensions of their human creators. In either case -- whether because of an independent right to free speech or because of a human creator's right -- Sacharoff says, "you can get to one or another nature of bots having some kind of free speech right." In previous Bulletin coverage, the author of the new California law dismisses the idea that the law violates free speech rights. State Sen. Robert Hertzberg says anonymous marketing and electioneering bots are committing fraud. "My point is, you can say whatever the heck you want," Hertzberg says. "I don't want to control one bit of the content of what's being said. Zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero. All I want is for the person who has to hear the content to know it comes from a computer. To me, that's a fraud element versus a free speech element." Sacharoff believes that the issue of bots and their potential First Amendment rights may one day have its day in court. Campaigns, he says, will find that bots are helpful and that their "usefulness derives from the fact that they don't have to disclose that they're bots. If some account is retweeting something, if they have to say, 'I'm a bot' every time, then it's less effective. So sure I can see some campaign seeking a declaratory judgment that the law is invalid," he says. "Ditto, I guess, [for] selling stuff on the commercial side."

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