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Digital Deception Decoder 
September 21, 2018

MapLight and the Digital Intelligence (DigIntel) Lab at the Institute for the Future have teamed up on a free 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!

  • Two insightful talks from the Online News Association conference highlight journalism’s role in the spread of disinformation—and offer visions for how journalists can reweave the fabric of democracy. First, Data & Society’s danah boyd dives into the ways that the media has been manipulated by extremist actors and recommends that journalists be more strategic about what they amplify. “[...] the moment that an algorithmic system affects what information people access, someone will work to manipulate that system to achieve their goals. You are not algorithms. But you are also not neutral.” Then, Heather Chaplin of The New School’s Journalism + Design program vividly analyzes the crisis of individual news organizations, the media industry, and the press in democracy and calls for greater resilience in journalism.
  • Data & Society’s Rebecca Lewis has released a new report on the “Alternative Influence Network,” an ecosystem of interlinked scholars, pundits, and media personalities that drive users to the fringe right on YouTube. Lewis meticulously maps this network, exploring the way it presents itself as an alternative to traditional media and deploys brand influencer tactics to sell extremism. “[...] increasingly, understanding the circulation of extremist political content does not just involve fringe communities and anonymous actors. Instead, it requires us to scrutinize polished, well-lit microcelebrities and the captivating videos that are easily available on the pages of the internet’s most popular video platform.”
  • The United Nations has waded into the fray with the release of a new handbook on “information disorder” commissioned by UNESCO. In NiemanLab, editors Julie Posetti and Cherilyn Ireton discuss the handbook’s seven modules, which focus on journalism and media literacy.
  • In WIRED, Renee DiResta looks at how computational propaganda delegitimizes “clicktivism” (the use of digital tools to raise public awareness and organize): “But when digital activism intersects with the flawed algorithms that surface content on online platforms, legitimate outreach and awareness campaigns can become tangled up with accounts that are there to spam and masquerade.”
  • According to a new study that measured the spread of false stories on Facebook and Twitter from 2015 through this summer, Facebook’s efforts to stem the tide may have had some success. Researchers Hunt Allcott, Matthew Gentzkow, and Chuan Yu looked at engagement with 570 sites known to peddle misinformation and found that interactions with these sites fell on Facebook after 2016, even as they continued to rise on Twitter.
  • Writing for The New York Times, Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti detangle what we know so far about Russian interference in the 2016 election (including a very helpful timeline). Their review covers the DNC email hack, the Internet Research Agency’s social media operations, and Russian ties to the Trump campaign.
  • With the 2018 midterms well underway, The Times has also launched a tipsheet for readers to submit suspicious social media activity they encounter around the election, joining similar efforts by publications such as Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, and ProPublica, as Daniel Funke reports for Poynter.

We want to hear from you! If you have suggestions for items to include in this newsletter, email them to hamsini@maplight.org. - Hamsini Sridharan

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