Digital Deception Decoder 

January 18, 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!

  • Drawing parallels to the toxic effects of the Industrial Revolution, Judy Estrin (CEO, JLabs) and Sam Gill (Knight Foundation) argue in Washington Monthly that we should treat the harmful byproducts of the Digital Revolution as “digital pollution” that necessitates collective response. “The question we face in the digital age is not how to have it all, but how to maintain valuable activity at a societal price on which we can agree. Just as we have made laws about tolerable levels of waste and pollution, we can make rules, establish norms, and set expectations for technology.”
  • Harvard Business School professor emerita Shoshana Zuboff’s new book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, could not be more timely. Per Nicholas Carr’s review in the LA Review of Books, Zuboff’s argument is that “By reengineering the economy and society to their own benefit, Google and Facebook are perverting capitalism in a way that undermines personal freedom and corrodes democracy.” The book details how tech titans use data not only to predict behavior—including voting behavior—but to shape it.
  • Privacy policy: According to the Washington Post’s Tony Romm and Elizabeth Dwoskin, the FTC is considering levying a record fine on Facebook for privacy violations. Meanwhile, Congress is looking at federal privacy legislation. One proposal, from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, would create a federal law that preempts state policies (including strong ones like California’s) and repeal sector-specific laws such as HIPAA, Makena Kelly reports for The Verge. In a similar vein, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has introduced a privacy bill that calls for Congress and the FTC to develop new rules for tech companies, preempts state laws, and is intended to protect small business.  
  • In a Time op-ed, Apple CEO Tim Cook calls for privacy legislation that puts users in control of their data—and provides transparency for the “shadow economy” of data brokers selling it, an area that has long remained opaque to the public. And speaking of data transparency and opacity, a survey run by Pew Research Center found that 74% of users were not aware that Facebook collected a list of their traits and interests that they could view from the “ad preferences” page. Fifty-one percent were uncomfortable that this list existed.
  • Media ecosystem: This week, Facebook committed to investing $300 million to support journalism over a three-year period, reports CNN’s Brian Stelter. The initiative will focus on local news and is similar to Google’s $300 million News Initiative from last year. On a related note, this piece from The Nation’s Kyle Chayka makes an interesting point about the need to get down to the level of content management systems in order to build sustainable alternatives to Google and Facebook for journalism.
  • In this working paper for Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project, the Atlantic Council’s Ben Nimmo proposes a model for determining whether Twitter traffic on a given topic is being manipulated. This “Coefficient of Traffic Manipulation” takes into account the average number of tweets per user, retweets as a percentage of total traffic, and the proportion of traffic coming from the 50 accounts that use the term in question the most.
  • In a joint University of Oxford and Stanford University white paper, researchers Timothy Garton Ash, Robert Gorwa, and Danaë Metaxa offer nine recommendations for immediate steps Facebook can take to protect free speech and democracy (though they point out that this self-regulation is not enough). Their proposals focus on three areas: content moderation policies, political information in the News Feed, and overall governance.

We want to hear from you! If you have suggestions for items to include in this newsletter, please email - Hamsini Sridharan

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