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Digital Deception Decoder 

January 25, 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!

  • Trust and antitrust: This week was marked by layoffs at several major publications, a sign of further turbulence in the media industry. In Slate, Ben Mathis-Lilley attributes the industry’s difficulties to Facebook and Google’s capture of digital advertising and suggests ways that media companies can compete. Also in Slate, Will Oremus turns a spotlight on what he calls the “trust industry”: a set of nonprofits and companies that seek to rank the credibility of news sources in order to combat the spread of disinformation, for better or worse.
  • In The Guardian, Ed Pilkington describes a poignant set of interviews with the victims of online conspiracy theories surrounding school shootings, Gamergate, and more. Meanwhile, a team of journalists at BuzzFeed News explored YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, watching the videos it suggested “Up Next” for a variety of news-related topics—and found that it often led them to conspiracy theories, hyperpartisan content, and content from hate groups. In response to similar investigations, the Washingon Post’s Elizabeth Dwoskin reports that today, YouTube announced it would change the recommendation algorithm to stop amplifying conspiracy theory videos.
  • The Facebook front: According to Mike Isaac at The New York Times, sources suggest that Mark Zuckerberg is planning to integrate WhatsApp and Instagram as well as Messenger with Facebook, renewing concerns about data collection and privacy as well as the company’s market dominance. Meanwhile, with the FTC considering fines against Facebook, Slate’s April Glaser argues that regulators should ensure that such fines come out of executives’ paychecks so that they feel the pinch.
  • Privacy protections: Charlotte Jee posts in the MIT Technology Review that France has fined Google $57 million for violating the GDPR, the largest fine so far under the law. Google was found guilty of failing to explain its data collection processes or get users’ consent for data processing and ad personalization. Russia is taking action against Facebook and Twitter for not complying with laws that require Russians’ personal data to be stored within the country, Ann M. Simmons reports in the Wall Street Journal.
  • On a related note, this NATO StratCom study from last November by Oxford Internet Institute’s Samantha Bradshaw, Lisa-Marie Neudert, and Philip N. Howard provides a useful catalog of regulations that countries around the world have implemented to tackle social media manipulation.
  • A study published in Science by researchers from Northeastern, Harvard, and the University at Buffalo analyzed the spread of fake news by registered voters on Twitter during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The researchers found that “Only 1% of individuals accounted for 80% of fake news source exposures, and 0.1% accounted for nearly 80% of fake news sources shared.” The study’s findings also line up with other research indicating that older, conservative-leaning individuals are more likely to engage with fake news.
  • This essay in WIRED by David Samuels meanders through a lot of ground in history, philosophy, and science fiction to underscore the dangers of “Big Tech” allying itself with government surveillance efforts. “A national or global surveillance network that uses beneficent algorithms to reshape human thoughts and actions in ways that elites believe to be just or beneficial to all mankind is hardly the road to a new Eden. It’s the road to a prison camp.”

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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