Social media sites are facing heightened scrutiny amid charges that an army of Russia-based "bot" accounts meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google are largely immune from liability even if they unwittingly help spread propaganda, attorneys say.

Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller's recent indictment of Russian nationals charged with creating phony social media accounts to sow discord among American voters could hasten efforts to require more transparency from internet companies, potentially opening up new legal risks down the road. But for now, long-standing U.S. internet law largely shields online platforms from liability over any third-party content, lawyers say, unless evidence emerges that a company helped another party use its systems for nefarious ends.

"The biggest question relating to any potential exposure that these platforms may have is their mental state, meaning: Did they know, did they have any idea that this type of activity was occurring? Did they know about the use of these bots to spread political propaganda and false claims that targeted individuals in the U.S.?" said Ballard Spahr Partner Edward J. McAndrew.

"In terms of criminal liability, prosecutors would really have to show that there was criminal intent on the part of the media platforms, and I think that's highly unlikely given the facts that are out there now," he said.

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