Digital Deception Decoder 
June 8, 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!

  • Bay Area event: Join MapLight’s Ann Ravel (former chair of the Federal Election Commission) and DigIntel Lab Research Manager Katie Joseff on June 27th for an evening discussion about “Digital Deception in the 2020 Election.” RSVP here, and feel free to share with anyone who might be interested!
  • Commenting on a new House Judiciary investigation of digital platforms, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tweeted on Monday, “Unwarranted, concentrated economic power in the hands of a few is dangerous to democracy – especially when digital platforms control content. The era of self-regulation is over.”
  • Antitrust: Pelosi’s comment comes as the House antitrust subcommittee announced a probe of Facebook, Google, and other major tech companies, Tony Romm and Elizabeth Dwoskin write for the Washington Post. Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that the Department of Justice and the FTC have divvied up antitrust investigations of Big Tech, with the DOJ scoring Apple and Google and the FTC nabbing Facebook and Amazon. Writing for the MIT Technology Review, Angela Chen offers a thorough explainer of the antitrust issues surrounding Big Tech.
  • But as the number of investigations proliferates, tech companies continue to lobby for favorable (or at least, less unfavorable) policies. In The New York Times, Cecilia Kang and Kenneth P. Vogel examine the massive lobbying operations that major tech companies have developed in recent years. (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google spent a combined $55 million on lobbying last year.) The Times article also points to a recent Public Citizen report, “The FTC’s Big Tech Revolving Door Problem,” which finds that 26 out of 41 of the top FTC officials from the past two decades have conflicts of interest relating to their work on behalf of tech companies.
  • Cybersecurity 2020: In The New York Times, Nicole Perlroth and Matthew Rosenberg discuss 2020 campaigns’ readiness for cybersecurity attacks after an FEC hearing regarding whether a security company can provide anti-spearphishing services to presidential campaigns at a discount. (The question being whether this would constitute a prohibited in-kind donation.) For Axios, Kaveh Waddell reached out to all 24 presidential campaigns and found that none who responded had taken any steps to safeguard against the potential threat of deepfakes—and campaigns disagreed on who should be responsible for monitoring deepfakes in the first place.
  • In WIRED, Issie Lapowsky discusses a new privacy bill in New York that promises to be even stronger than California’s landmark Consumer Protection Act. The New York bill differs from California’s on two important counts: first, it would establish data fiduciary responsibilities for social media platforms and second, if passed, the bill would give individual New Yorkers the right to sue companies directly for privacy violations. (The question remains as to whether a patchwork of state privacy laws might be used by companies to argue for a weaker federal law that preempts them.)
  • Stanford’s new Cyber Policy Center has released a white paper entitled “Securing American Elections: Prescriptions for Enhancing the Integrity and Independence of the 2020 U.S. Presidential Elections and Beyond,” in which experts offer recommendations to increase transparency for elections and deter foreign interference.
  • Alexandra Bruell reports for the Wall Street Journal that according to one advertising company, $2 billion was spent on digital political advertising in the U.S. in 2018—and that number is expected to grow to $2.8 billion in 2020. Meanwhile, in a recent study, Virginia Tech’s Katherine Haenschen and former masters student Jordan Wolf evaluate how Facebook and Google’s profit-maximizing motives led them to seek exemptions from political ad disclaimers, and this combined with the FEC’s partisan deadlock to result in a complete lack of transparency for digital advertising.

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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