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Digital Deception Decoder 
August 5, 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!

  • Foreign interference: While Russia has received the most attention, ahead of 2020, experts warn that countries like Iran are likely to ramp up online political manipulation, report Craig Timberg and Tony Romm for the Washington Post. Beyond Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Venezuela, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel all have histories of engaging in influence campaigns at home and abroad. In fact, this week Facebook identified two large influence operations in Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt that focused on countries in the Middle East and North and East Africa. More than 13.7 million accounts followed the Emirati and Egyptian operation, while 1.4 million followed one or more of the Saudi pages.  
  • Just one day after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s timely warning about election interference during his testimony on Capitol Hill, the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that Russia targeted voter registration systems and voting databases in all 50 states, details Sean Hollister in The Verge. While there is no proof that Russia tampered with voter data, chillingly, the Senate report suggests that they had sufficient access to do so.
  • Despite looming threats and pressure from Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continues to block election security bills, including H.R. 1 (the For the People Act), writes Li Zhou in Vox. A similar fate may await new legislation to address foreign election interference that the House will consider next month. McConnell appears to be concerned about increasing the federal government’s role in elections and casting doubt on the legitimacy of the Trump presidency. In The Verge, Makena Kelly calls the Majority Leader out, writing that Congress is “running out of time” to take action for 2020.
  • More bills: On Tuesday, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) introduced yet another bill to take on Big Tech. The Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act specifically targets “addictive” features of sites like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat, explains Emily Birnbaum in The Hill. In an attempt to prevent the “next Cambridge Analytica,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has introduced the Voter Privacy Act, giving users more control over the data used by political campaigns and social media platforms. And Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) also introduced legislation this week aimed at Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The Stop the Censorship Act would eliminate platforms’ ability to take down content deemed “objectionable,” details Kelly in The Verge. 
  • Platform “bias”: In The Atlantic, media studies scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan excoriates the dangers of Republican arguments that platforms like Facebook and Google are biased against conservatives, pointing out that there is no evidence to this effect. Meanwhile, in the Washington Post, intermediary liability expert Daphne Keller responds to legislative proposals like Gosar’s by explaining how CDA 230 was intended to work and why attempts to impose “neutrality” on platforms are likely to backfire. Keller suggests that we turn our attention to more productive conversations about the need for transparency in content moderation, renewed competition law, and more nuanced ways to tackle illegal or legal-but-harmful speech.
  • Facing controversy related to privacy, disinformation, and anti-competitive behavior, the “Big Four” technology companies (Amazon, Apple, Facebook,and Google) have ramped up political spendingfinds a report by Public Citizen’s Mike Tanglis. According to the report, the companies have cumulatively spent $346 million on lobbying and campaign contributions since 2010—including $118 million in 2018 alone. 
  • While Facebook is notorious for its role in spreading disinformation, for Nieman Lab, social media expert Jennifer Grygiel explores how updates to Facebook’s News Feed algorithm also suppressed credible news sources, further destabilizing the online information environment. In the wake of a 2015 algorithm change, Facebook users were found to be less likely to visit the sites of reputable news outlets. Grygiel raises the possibility of an algorithmic “quiet period” leading up to 2020. 
  • Hotline: In Slate, the DigIntel Lab’s Katie Joseff, Sam Woolley, and Nick Monaco make the case for social media platforms to address the coordinated harassment of marginalized communities (especially around political events) by setting up dedicated hotlines. They argue, “Supporting the people and communities most likely—and most usually—attacked during pivotal political events will have a cascade effect in building a stronger global democracy, safer social media platforms, and more equitable online spaces.”
  • Note: This week’s Decoder was co-authored by MapLight intern Abby Luke. 

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

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