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Digital Deception Decoder 
July 20, 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!

  • A new report from Carly Nyst and Nick Monaco at the DigIntel Lab examines state-sponsored trolling, providing a framework and case studies to illustrate “the use by states of targeted online hate and harassment campaigns to intimidate and silence individuals critical of the state,” and offering policy recommendations. The U.S. case study examines in particular social media attacks on Republican critics of Donald Trump during his campaign and after the election.
  • In a related vein, Samantha Bradshaw and Philip Howard at the Oxford Internet Institute Computational Propaganda Research Project have released the 2018 Global Cyber Troops inventory. This report explores trends in organized social media manipulation by government and political party actors in 48 countries, including the U.S. One trend they highlight is the growth of an entire “influence industry” supporting the spread of political disinformation.
  • Reading metadata: Data & Society’s Amelia Acker offers an interesting discussion of how researchers can use metadata to identify and track disinformation, countering the “data craft” practiced by deceptive digital actors to make their efforts at political manipulation appear legitimate.
  • BuzzFeed News has continued to investigate the Macedonian “fake news teens” who were revealed in 2016 to have made money off of pumping disinformation into the U.S. election. The joint reporting project’s latest revelation: the teens’ efforts were organized by a Macedonian lawyer who collaborated closely with the founders of Liberty Writers News, a U.S.-based hyperpartisan conservative website accused of peddling misinformation.
  • The New York Times’ Sheera Frenkel reports that, according to a new study out of NYU, President Trump’s PAC has spent $274,000 on Facebook ads since the platform began its political ad archive in May—making him the social network’s largest political advertiser. The researchers, who scraped all of the archive’s data to date, also found that 12 Democrat and eight Republican candidates and PACs constituted the top 20 political spenders.
  • Writing for the Guardian, literary critic Michiko Kakutani interrogates how we arrived at this post-truth political moment, diving into the ways that postmodernist thought has been co-opted to spread disinformation and propaganda. Kakutani concludes, “Without commonly agreed-on facts [...] there can be no rational debate over policies, no substantive means of evaluating candidates for political office, and no way to hold elected officials accountable to the people. Without truth, democracy is hobbled.”
  • On Just Security, disinformation experts Jonathan Morgan and Renee DiResta reframe the debate around dealing with disinformation, arguing that we should understand information operations as an ecosystem to be dealt with systemically, rather than relying on piecemeal efforts. “It’s time to change our way of thinking about propaganda and disinformation: it’s not a truth-in-narrative issue, it’s an adversarial attack in the information space. Info ops are a cybersecurity issue.
  • In moderation: How do platforms view their responsibility to moderate content? This question, focused around the example of Alex Jones’ InfoWars, comes to the fore in Kara Swisher’s revealing interview with Mark Zuckerberg for Recode, as well as in a conversation between Will Oremus at Slate and Twitter’s lead of trust and safety, Vijaya Gadde. Meanwhile, a Channel 4 undercover investigation exposes questionable practices in Facebook’s UK content moderation teams, and Motherboard reveals Facebook’s page and group deletion thresholds.

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

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