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Digital Deception Decoder 
December 4, 2019

Produced by MapLight, 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!

  • A speculative turn: For The New York Times, writer Annalee Newitz spoke with experts such as Siva Vaidhyanathan, Safiya Noble, and Mikki Kendall to speculate about where the internet might go after our social media troubles. Newitz writes, “What if future companies designed media to facilitate democracy right from the beginning? Is it possible to create a form of digital communication that promotes consensus-building and civil debate, rather than divisiveness and conspiracy theories?” Meanwhile, for the Columbia Journalism Review, Ethan Zuckerman turns back to the history of public service radio to suggest a possible future for the internet: “A public service Web invites us to imagine services that don’t exist now, because they are not commercially viable, but perhaps should exist for our benefit, for the benefit of citizens in a democracy.” Zuckerman points to Wikipedia as one current example.
  • Also in CJR, Syracuse University professor Whitney Phillips offers a fascinating perspective on “information pollution” (as coined by Claire Wardle of First Draft News). Phillips suggests that we take an ecological perspective to understanding the spread of and responses to disinformation and demonstrates how the phenomenon disproportionately affects marginalized communities — as with offline pollution. While you’re reading: the Fall 2019 issue of CJR is dedicated to the theme of disinformation.
  • Some internet innovators are thinking through how to improve the online ecosystem now. Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s Web Foundation recently launched the Contract for the Web, a set of principles and commitments for governments, companies, and civil society, Ian Sample reports in The Guardian. Facebook, Google, and Twitter have all signed on so far. And Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is trying his hand at social media, according to Christine Fisher in Engadget, with the launch of the ad-free WT:Social. 
  • Microtargeting: For Bloomberg, Gerrit De Vynck explores one limitation of Google’s new microtargeting rules for political advertising: display ads, which allow advertisers to use their own targeting data. In WIRED, Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Fellow Dipayan Ghosh points out another limitation—the likelihood that Google and Facebook’s algorithmic delivery of ads could end up having the same effect as microtargeting simply because of the companies’ engagement-based business models. Meanwhile, Alex Kantrowitz reports that Facebook’s new pitch to political marketers emphasizes its election protection efforts rather than its targeting capabilities.
  • Bots: At First Draft News, Rory Smith and Carlotta Dotto discuss the science of bot detection and offer a handy infographic on how to spot bots yourself. Nick Monaco of the Digital Intelligence Lab at the Institute for the Future recaps the lab’s research on bot activity surrounding the fall Democratic debates. And a new study out of Duke University suggests that the Internet Research Agency’s Twitter bots may not have affected people’s political attitudes and behaviors—because the people who were most likely to engage with them were already in media echo chambers. Will Oremus discusses the study’s findings and limitations in OneZero. 
  • A leak of TikTok’s content moderation guidelines shows that moderators are told to mark political content as “not recommended,” limiting its reach, according to Angela Chen at the MIT Technology Review.
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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