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Illustration: Rebecca ZIsser / Axios

Bots and fake accounts have been used to steal advertising dollars and game digital commerce for years, but the story of Russian meddling in the election is now shining the light on a different bot problem, which is that bots and fake accounts are being weaponized by bad actors to cause chaos, disrupt elections, and spread false and misleading information.

Why it matters: The government has stalled on regulating the digital ecosystem for years, in part because there's no agency that was ever set up to manage the internet, the way the FCC manages radio and TV. But now that the bot problem is affecting politics, Congress is starting to take bots and fake accounts seriously.

Case in point: The largest bad bot criminal ring in history, the Russian "Methbot," was revealed last year to have last stolen millions of advertising dollars, mostly from ad networks, by spoofing common websites with bots and stealing their ad traffic and revenue. But Congress, for the most part, hardly reacted to the Methbot publicly — although Sens. Mark Warner and Chuck Schumer did look to the FTC for answers on click fraud earlier that year.

Consider the government efforts since the story broke on September 6th that Russian actors used fake accounts to buy ads on Facebook:

  • Sep. 27: Facebook and Twitter privately testified in front of the House and Senate Intel committees.
  • Oct. 10: The FEC reopened political ad disclosure comment period, the first time they've taken action on the issue for over a decade.
  • Oct 21: Sens. Klobuchar, Warner and McCain introduced the "Honest Ads Act" bill to bring transparency around digital ad disclosure

This week:

  • Oct. 23: Energy and Commerce Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) sent a letter to the CEOs of Google, Facebook and Twitter requesting a meeting to discuss the their policies for content management and advertising.
  • Oct 24: The House Subcommittee on Information Technology will meet to discuss laws surrounding political advertisements and disclosures. Among those that will be attending are industry heavyweights, like David Chavern, President and Chief Executive Officer of the News Media Alliance (NMA) and Randall Rothenberg, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB).
  • Oct 24: Trump digital advisor Brad Parscale will meet with the House Intelligence Committee W, presumably about Russia's role in the 2016 election
  • Nov. 1: Facebook, Twitter and Google will publicly testify in front of the House Intel Committee on Nov. 1

Sound smart: Democrats know it will be difficult to get Republicans on board with any legislation that touches ad disclosures or even digital regulation, which is why the narrative from top Democrats has focused on national security, an issue that's less likely to receive pushback from Republicans. Tech companies know that without the real threat of regulation beyond disclosures, they have no incentive to do much beyond meet advertiser and user expectations for distributing good content, and the bar for that has proven to be low.

Go deeper

Fintech's record year

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Massive venture rounds into fintech companies have ballooned this year, pushing up total dollars invested — in just the first three quarters of 2021 — to nearly double the amount in all of 2020, per new PitchBook data.

Why it matters: The maturing of fintech startups means a growing number of companies are able to raise huge later-stage funding rounds as investors look to lock-in their bets.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
1 hour ago - Energy & Environment

Democrats' clean power outlook is very muddy

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Here are two big questions as a key Democratic proposal to slash emissions from power generation flounders: how much its demise would sap climate protections, and what might replace it.

Catch up fast: New financial carrots and sticks for utilities to deploy zero-carbon power — the Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP) — look unlikely to stay in Democrats' big social spending and climate bill.

1 hour ago - Health

CDC: Unvaccinated are over 11 times more likely to die from COVID

Expand chart
Reproduced from CDC; Note: Data represents 30% of Americans across 16 jurisdictions: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York City, Seattle/King County, Wash., Utah and Wisconsin; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

The CDC recently published data evaluating Americans' rate of coronavirus cases and deaths by vaccine status, providing more data on which vaccines are working best and how much protection they offer relative to being unvaccinated.

What they found: As of August, unvaccinated people had a more than six times higher risk of testing positive for the coronavirus, and were more than 11 times more likely to die from the virus.