Digital Deception Decoder 
April 19, 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!

  • After two years of investigation, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the 2016 Trump campaign and Russian interference has been released (with 10% redacted). BuzzFeed’s Ryan Broderick reviews everything the document reveals about how Russian troll farm Internet Research Agency manipulated social media. In Time, Tara Law and Abby Vesoulis connect the Russian meddling efforts discussed by Mueller to solutions recommended by experts, including moves to counter fake news, improve political ad transparency, and take on bots.
  • At this week’s TED conference in Vancouver, Carole Cadwalladr, the journalist who broke the Cambridge Analytica story, reads social media companies the riot act for their role in destabilizing democracy. Addressing the talk to the platforms’ CEOs, Cadwalladr asks, “Is this how you want history to remember you: as the handmaidens to authoritarianism that is on the rise all across the world?” (Also at TED, Claire Wardle of First Draft News discussed plans for a new platform, Civic, intended to crowdsource fact checks across platforms, per Emily Dreyfuss in WIRED.)
  • Accountability may be on the way for Facebook’s CEO: according to Washington Post reporter Tony Romm’s sources at the FTC, the agency is considering whether to blame Mark Zuckerberg for the company's privacy violations. Meanwhile, in the L.A. Times, Michael Hiltzik discusses growing shareholder disgruntlement with Zuckerberg’s leadership (though as Hiltzik points out, given Zuckerberg’s controlling stake in the company, proposals to curb his power will go nowhere).
  • Twitter’s Jack Dorsey was grilled by TED's head, Chris Anderson, and current affairs curator Whitney Pennington Rodgers, on his role as ship captain of the “Twittanic.” In WIRED, Dreyfuss recaps the frustrating conversation, in which Dorsey shares that Twitter now proactively detects 38% of abusive content (vs. relying on user reporting) and otherwise remains vague on details. Meanwhile, in The New York Times, Daisuke Wakabayashi puts the spotlight on YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki for the first time, in a profile that chronicles a level-headed leader struggling to cope with the many challenges of toxic content and abuse faced by the platform.
  • WIRED’s Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein cover “15 Months of Fresh Hell Inside Facebook,” documenting the platform’s internal struggles to cope with crisis after crisis starting in 2018. The piece provides new information about why Instagram’s co-founders parted ways with Facebook and reveals that Mark Zuckerberg at one point tabled a plan to support high-quality publishers on the platform due to concerns that it would make Facebook look biased against conservative websites such as Breitbart and the Daily Caller. (Meanwhile, Sam Levin reports in the Guardian that Facebook has teamed up with the Daily Caller, a site known to spread disinformation, on a fact-checking initiative.)
  • Unto the breach: This week alone, Olivia Solon and Cyrus Farivar published a report for NBC News on Mark Zuckerberg's attempts to leverage user data to control potential competitors to Facebook; Facebook confirmed that it accidentally harvested 1.5 million people’s email contacts without their consent, per Rob Price in Business Insider; and Kurt Wagner reported for Recode that the company had, in fact, stored millions of Instagram passwords unencrypted, not the mere tens of thousands it previously acknowledged.
  • In yet another intriguing WIRED piece, Rose Eveleth speculates about connections between tech futurism and fascism, drawing on the historical example of early 20th century Italian futurists whose philosophy leaned decidedly in that direction.
  • Faced with deplatforming by major social media companies, white nationalists and other right-wing extremists are being driven to darker corners of the internet. In VoA News, Masood Farivar explores their migration to Russian network VKontakte, while in Motherboard, Ben Makuch and Mack Lamoureux look at extremists’ shift to encrypted messaging, Gab, and IRL organizing. As one terrorism expert points out, this presents a trade-off, as the groups become harder to track—but also have a harder time reaching and radicalizing new members through mainstream platforms.

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