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Digital Deception Decoder 

July 27, 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!
  • Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) is the first confirmed target of Russian attempts to meddle in the 2018 midterms, according to a report from the Daily Beast. The unsuccessful hack employed a variant of the method Russia used to hack John Podesta in 2016. Meanwhile, President Trump tweeted Tuesday that he expected Russia would be “pushing very hard for the Democrats” in 2018.  

  • It’s been a busy few days for Sen. McCaskill.  Earlier this week, she joined several congressional Democrats to introduce a bill making it a federal crime to knowingly spread false information about elections and voting eligibility -- proposing punishing those who spread false information designed to suppress the vote with a fine up to $100K and/or up to five years in prison.

  • Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) spoke with Colin Lecher of The Verge in a wide-ranging interview about confronting misinformation and protecting privacy online.  Wyden co-authored Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in 1996, legislation that shields technology platforms from liability based on what their users say.  Here, he grapples thoughtfully with how technology companies could better use the “sword and shield” elements of that provision, 2016 election interference, and the role of the states in protecting net neutrality.

  • The company that helped make digital photo manipulation possible (and even easy) is now working to develop new tools and intelligence to spot photos that have been doctored for deceptive purposes. Vlad Morariu at Adobe explains how the new technology focuses on “three common tampering techniques—splicing, where parts of two different images are combined; copy-move, where objects in a photograph are moved or cloned from one place to another; and removal, where an object is removed from a photograph, and filled-in.”

  • The online response to a fake interview from Conservative Review TV and New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a reminder that the differentiation between satire and hoax is not always obvious to viewers.  What responsibility do outlets have to convey material as satire -- and when is unlabeled “satire” simply an attempt to manipulate? Robert Mackey outlines the controversy over the video in The Intercept.

  • Silicon Valley goes to Washington, Round 2.  Facebook, Google, and Twitter have been summoned to Washington, D.C. for a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in September to discuss foreign political activity on their platforms.  As first reported by Emma Loop and Ryan Mac of BuzzFeed, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) says there’s no set date for the hearing yet.

  • A study from economists at Stanford and Brown Universities finds Donald Trump performed worse during the 2016 election among internet users than previous Republican candidates.   Jesse Shapiro, one of the paper’s co-authors, tells Will Oremus at Slate that “The question is not whether the internet is having any impact on politics—it surely is—but whether it deserves the top billing it often gets in discussions about the election.”

  • MIT professor Sinan Aral writes thoughtfully in the Harvard Business Review about the challenging road ahead to recognize and prevent the spread of false news online.  Aral breaks the solutions down into four categories: “educating the players, changing their incentives, improving technological tools, and (the right amount of) governmental oversight.”

  • Michael Riley, Lauren Etter and Bibhudatta Pradhan of Bloomberg outline chilling examples of state-sponsored and state-incited trolling in more than a dozen countries across the globe. ICYMI - Last week we highlighted a report rife with case studies on state-sponsored trolling from Carly Nyst and Nick Monaco at the DigIntel Lab.

  • 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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