FTC Calls Use of Bots in Advertising a “Deceptive Practice”

The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) has sent a report to Congress on the use of social media bots in online advertising. Based on their observations, the FTC says that the use of these bots may constitute a “deceptive practice” under certain circumstances. This means that any person or company that uses bots for illicit purposes may be opening themselves to legal liability at some point.

The term “bots” refers to automated programs that engage with users, collect data, aggregate stories, or conduct other activities that would normally be performed by human beings. It is estimated that as much as 37% of all online traffic is the result of bot activity, and 90% of all bots are used for commercial purposes. While bots are typically used for benign purposes, such as sending out surveys or notifying people of emergencies, they can also be used for malicious purposes, such as disseminating hate speech, engaging in coordinated harassment campaigns or infecting unsuspecting users with malware.

Of interest for the FTC is the use of bots in the context of social media, where bots are often used to mimic human behavior and may be used to fake social media engagement. Some companies sell services promising to bolster engagement using networks of bot accounts, which is tempting for social media “influencers” and advertising-dependent websites that rely on engagement for revenue. Bots are also sometimes used to spread fake or misleading reviews, or to distribute spam containing promotional links to certain sites.

It is these uses of bots, specifically, that the FTC calls out as a potential deceptive practice, given that it can be used to defraud companies who make advertising determinations based on user engagement metrics. The FTC also noted that users tend to see accounts with larger followings as more trustworthy, making it easier to spread false or misleading information through fake engagement. In fact, the FTC recently announced an enforcement action against a company that sold fake followers, subscribers, likes and comments as part of a strategy to generate false engagement. The FTC notes it is not the first time it has initiated an enforcement action for the malicious or fraudulent use of bots, nor is it likely to be the last.

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