Digital Deception Decoder 

March 22, 2019

Produced by MapLight and the DigIntel Lab at the Institute for the Future, the Decoder is a newsletter to help you track the most important news, research, and analysis of deceptive digital politics. Each week, we'll send you coverage of the webs of entities that seek to manipulate public opinion, their political spending ties, and the actors working to safeguard our democracy. Know someone who might be interested? Ask them to sign up!

  • “Just as journalists of the past learned to cover white supremacists differently from other groups, platform companies must address the role their technology plays as the megaphone for white supremacists,” writes the Harvard Shorenstein Center’s Joan Donovan in the Atlantic, explaining the ways that violent extremists deliberately exploit tech platforms. Within 24 hours of the shooting in New Zealand, Facebook had removed 1.5 million versions of the gunman’s video, while YouTube reportedly coped with a deluge of copies uploaded as fast as once per second. On Twitter, Facebook’s former security chief Alex Stamos elaborates on the challenges this type of event poses for tech platforms.
  • Recommendation algorithms: Meanwhile, in the Atlantic, Taylor Lorenz explores the ways that Instagram’s follower recommendation systems can rapidly lead young people down politically polarizing roads. For CNN, Oliver Darcy examines a new Twitter feature that inserts tweets from accounts a user might be interested in into their feed, arguing that this could amplify extreme political views. Meanwhile in WIRED, Tom Simonite discusses some of the individuals seeking to counteract the polarizing features of recommendation algorithms.
  • In a victory for advocates, Facebook has settled with a number of groups that have sued over the ways the platform enables discriminatory ad targeting practices. As Noam Scheiber and Mike Isaac report for The New York Times, as part of this settlement, Facebook will halt targeting based on race, gender, age group, or zip code for sensitive advertising categories such as housing, jobs, and credit.
  • Monopoly: Warren’s bid to break up Big Tech is just one sign among many that internet companies are due for greater scrutiny by U.S. competition regulators. Just this week, The New York Times posted an op-ed from Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) calling for the FTC to investigate Facebook for antitrust violations, and The Verge’s Makena Kelly interviewed Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) on “the conservative case against Facebook.” Of course, there are powerful countervailing forces at play, as Kietryn Zychal’s review of tech industry lobbying and political contributions for the OpenSecrets blog shows. Meanwhile, across the pond, the UK’s Digital Competition Expert Panel released its final report with recommendations for creating a digital markets unit, updating merger policy, and leveraging antitrust policy, while the EU fined Google $1.7 billion for forcing customers to use AdSense
  • In Sludge, Karl Bode suggests that the focus on breaking up Big Tech should be expanded to tackle the telecom industry and media consolidation policies that have decimated local journalism.
  • In Axios, David McCabe and Kaveh Waddell discuss a new bill being drafted by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) that would require major platforms to tell users the value of their data. In a similar vein, they point to California Governor Gavin Newsom’s “data dividend,” which would actually let consumers get paid for their data.
  • Facebook’s privacy nightmare continues. Last week, The New York Times reported that the company is under criminal investigation in New York for its data deals with partners. Days later, Carole Cadwalladr published the latest update to the Cambridge Analytica saga in the Guardian, as investigators seek to determine who at Facebook knew what, when—including an alleged meeting between whistleblower Christopher Wylie and Facebook board member Marc Andreessen in the summer of 2016. Also in the Guardian, media studies scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan connects the dots, writing sharply that “You don’t need Cambridge Analytica when you have Facebook.”
  • Andreessen Horowitz partner Benedict Evans offers an interesting comparison between Microsoft’s “evil empire” days and Facebook’s response to its present predicaments.
  • In CNN, Jeremy Diamond, Dana Bash, and Fredreka Schouten dive into the mechanics of Trump’s campaign for re-election, including campaign manager Brad Parscale’s marriage of rallies and digital tactics with the RNC’s extensive voter data machine. In Axios, Sara Fischer compares the Trump campaign’s digital ad spends on Facebook and Google with those of Democratic candidates. Meanwhile, Washingtonian’s Luke Mullins offers an intriguing look at the lengths to which some lobbyists are willing to go to reach Trump—including geofencing ads targeting him and influencers in his circle.
  • PEN America has released a new report analyzing Russian and domestic disinformation in the 2018 midterms. “Truth on the Ballot” also reviews actions taken by tech platforms. It concludes with recommendations for tech companies, legislators, and political groups, as well as a “Model Pledge Against Fraudulent News” for candidates and political parties.

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