Digital Deception Decoder 

March 15, 2019 -- Tragedy in New Zealand

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!

  • Tragedy in New Zealand: News is still breaking about a terror attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand that has killed 49 people. CNN reports that Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are struggling to halt the spread of footage of the attack, which appears to have been at least partially live streamed on Facebook.  Hamza Shaban, Craig Timberg, Drew Harwell and Andrew Ba Tran of the Washington Post outline the role of video and social media in radicalization as well as publicizing the violence -- a discussion which will surely continue once more details about the attack are known.

  • Islamophobia on the campaign trail: A survey analysis by Lawrence Pintak, Brian Bowe, and Jonathan Albright published in Foreign Policy finds a third of American Muslims running in the 2018 primaries experienced “high” or “very high” levels of Islamophobia during their campaigns -- with females candidates who wear a hijab serving as “particular lighting rods for hate.” The analysis points to especially troubling discourse on Twitter and a shared view from the majority of American Muslim candidates that the media is responsible for spreading fear about Islam.

  • Big fines for illegal foreign money: The Federal Election Commission levied nearly $1 million combined in fines against Right to Rise, a super PAC backing Jeb Bush in 2016, and a Chinese-owned company that illegally contributed to Right to Rise. The fine is the largest penalty since the Citizens United decision and third-largest of all time, according to the Campaign Legal Center, which brought the complaint to the FEC after Jon Schwarz and Lee Fang of The Intercept originally reported the illegal contribution in August of 2016. As Noah Bookbinder of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics points out, the fine marks a “rare and welcome instance of the Federal Election Commission doing its job.” Our campaign finance system is still littered with loopholes large enough to drive trucks through -- but the fine is a signal that contributions by foreign nationals to influence elections won’t go completely unchecked.

  • On the Web’s 30th birthday, its inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee of the World Wide Web Foundation wrote a letter marking three decades -- and illuminating the greatest risks of the modern internet.  The letter touches on a number of themes related to disinformation and manipulation while cautioning against oversimplifying the problem.  “You can’t just blame one government, one social network or the human spirit,” Berners-Lee writes. “Simplistic narratives risk exhausting our energy as we chase the symptoms of these problems instead of focusing on their root causes.”

  • Chinese Trolls or Patriots? Craig Silverman and Jane Lytvynenko of Buzzfeed report that Reddit users are noticing an “increase in posts from newly created accounts that downvote anything critical of China, swarm threads to push pro–Communist Party views, or attack anyone criticizing the country.” But whether or not that’s part of a coordinated effort by China is less clear -- and a reminder of the challenges of documenting such coordination.

  • On the lighter side, Taylor Lorenz writes in the Atlantic about how teens are using Google Docs a little differently than most of us.  Behind their parents and teachers backs, Lorenz outlines how the feature designed for group editing has been transformed by teens as the note-passing of the new generation.

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