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Digital Deception Decoder 

October 19, 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!

  • Joan Donovan, Anthony Nadler, and Matthew Crain have a new report out for Data & Society on the “digital influence machine.” They examine how the monitoring of consumer data, customized audience targeting, and ad automation and optimization have been turned into political weapons, against the backdrop of declining journalism funding, growth of political spending, and a weak regulatory environment (that allows for dark money and dark ads).
  • Speaking of which, political ad forecasting agency Borrell Associates estimates that digital political advertising will reach $1.8 billion this election cycle—an astronomical increase relative to 2014. While tech companies have tried to bring greater transparency to online political ads, loopholes abound: in The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal digs into News for Democracy, a liberal group that is pouring money into digital without disclosing its donors, while The New York Times’ Kevin Roose spotlights how digital ads can still be run anonymously, as is the case in one contested Virginia House race.
  • Also troubling are false positives in Facebook’s system for flagging political ads that affect women, LGBT groups, and communities of color. Jessica Guynn reports for USA Today that Facebook has taken down or mislabeled several ads run by businesses and nonprofits that mention African-Americans, Hispanics, women, or LGBT groups—even when the ads are pretty obviously not advancing an electoral political agenda. (Meanwhile, the National Republican Congressional Committee has spent tens of thousands of dollars on ads to mobilize its base by pitting Trump against Oprah in 2020, according to Slate’s April Glaser—even though Oprah isn’t running.)
  • According to a Reuters exclusive earlier this week, Facebook has decided to ban false information about voting in order to contain voter suppression-related disinformation before the midterms. Twitter recently dealt with a small-scale version of this when it suspended 1,500 accounts created as part of a campaign to troll liberals as "nonplayable characters," or NPCs, that started promoting false election information, reports Roose. ("NPC" is a reference to computer-controlled characters in video games.)
  • Twitter has released over 10 million tweets by Russia’s Internet Research Agency and the Iranian influence operation—a valuable data set for studying how foreign actors have manipulated the public. The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Lab has a preliminary analysis of the “Troll Archive”: Part One introduces the analysis, Part Two looks at the IRA’s comeback after the 2016 election, Part Three explores Iran’s messaging operations, and Part Four expands on conclusions and implications. Meanwhile, yesterday, Twitter acted on a tip from NBC News and an independent investigator to suspend a botnet of unknown origin that has been spouting pro-Saudi messaging denying the likely murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi.
  • Two great essays this week on how we got here. Writing in The Yale Review, Renee DiResta traces the evolution of computational propaganda from early state propaganda through the birth of the internet and its colonization by ad-driven companies that curate information via search, trending, and recommendation algorithms. “Through a series of unintended consequences, algorithms have inadvertently become the invisible rulers that control the destinies of millions.” Jonathan Albright discusses the rise of the “Splintrnet” in the context of changes to how we view the internet’s democratic potential: “It’s not the Internet that poses a threat to democratic society. It’s that the technologies that make up what we call ‘the Internet’ have become less democratic.”

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

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