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Digital Deception Decoder 
August 24, 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!

  • Two great pieces this week calling for the U.S. government to defend democracy instead of leaving it up to tech companies. WIRED’s Issie Lapowsky takes the federal government to task for its lack of coordination and meaningful action to combat cyber threats to democracy. And Facebook’s former Chief Security Officer, Alex Stamos, writes in Lawfare that at least for 2020, the government must act to counter online disinformation, develop defensive cybersecurity capacities, and shore up election security. “In short, if the U.S. continues down this path, it risks allowing its elections to become the World Cup of information warfare, in which U.S. adversaries and allies battle to impose their various interests on the American electorate.”
  • On Monday, Microsoft announced that it had seized control of six websites connected to Russian intelligence and that it was launching a new cybersecurity initiative for campaigns and political organizations. Two of the sites appeared to spoof conservative think tanks, likely because of their hard-line stance toward Russia, as David E. Sanger and Sheera Frenkel report for The New York Times. And, according to Chris Riotta at the Independent, the Russian botnet tracked by the Alliance for Securing Democracy attempted to divert attention from this week’s announcements about Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen by driving xenophobic takes on the Mollie Tibbetts murder.
  • On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that Facebook had removed 652 fake pages and accounts linked to a global disinformation campaign by the Iranian state that included targets in the U.S., followed by similar announcements from Twitter and YouTube. Slate’s April Glaser and Aaron Mak take a look at some of the Iranian posts, which (so far) haven’t been particularly sophisticated.
  • Data for democracy? While Facebook has made advances in transparency and election protection in recent months, David Ingram reports for NBC News that one initiative has a curious limitation: Facebook’s partnership with Social Science One to research the effects of social media on elections will only give researchers access to data from 2017 onward—meaning the project won’t shed new light on what, exactly, happened during the 2016 election.
  • Dark texts: At Vice News, Alex Thompson explores a recent trend in political campaigning that may create a new front in the battle against disinformation: peer-to-peer text campaigns. As Thompson observes, campaigns and outside spending groups are going to great lengths to acquire voters’ cell phone numbers—and the medium is already being used to ping voters with attack ads. Text messaging is exempt from FEC “paid for by” disclaimer requirements due to a ruling from the days of character-limited texts.
  • The latest issue of the MIT Technology Review focuses on technology in democracy, past, present, and future. It’s a treasure trove of great articles, including a history of digital technology in political campaigns from Alex Howard, fascinating maps of Twitter filter bubbles from Graphika’s John Kelly and Camille François, and speculation about a future of weaponized political chatbots spawned by advances in natural-language processing from Lisa-Maria Neudert.
  • In WIRED, Issie Lapowsky profiles SurfSafe, the latest development from UC Berkeley undergrads Ash Bhat and Rohan Phadte, meant to debunk fake images circulating on social media. SurfSafe works by comparing photos to a database of “fingerprints” for every image on over 100 trusted news sites.
  • In this Carnegie Council podcast, MapLight Senior Fellow Ann Ravel talks to Devin Stewart about our Digital Deception project, the need for international coordination on solutions, and dark money.

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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