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Digital Deception Decoder 
August 26, 2019

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!

  • The Hong Kong protests are the latest front in the battle against digital deception; last Monday, Twitter revealed that it had removed 936 Chinese accounts coordinating to spread disinformation about the protests, while Facebook removed a few as well, reports Kate Conger for The New York Times. Twitter is now banning state-controlled media from its advertising platform. Days later, Google reported that it had removed 210 YouTube channels spreading similar propaganda. (The state-sponsored accounts were likely targeting Hong Kong residents and global audiences). This is not China’s only foray into social media operations; for The Intercept, Ryan Gallagher describes how a Chinese state media organization used Twitter ads to spread false information about the mass detention of Uighurs.
  • China is far from the only hotspot; Facebook announced that it has taken down yet more accounts engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” in Myanmar. Meanwhile, Reuters offers a useful recap of Facebook’s takedowns this year to date. And in the Washington Post, researchers who studied large-scale digital deception efforts in the European parliamentary elections earlier this year argue that Facebook is far from ready for 2020 in the U.S.
  • Facebook has released the interim findings of former senator John Kyl’s audit of conservative bias on its platform. As Renee DiResta points out in Slate, the slim document is little more than a list of complaints surfaced from interviews with conservative groups—with little data on how they match up to the platform’s actual behavior. DiResta observes that while claims of bias are unfounded, it’s worth having a broader conversation about the opacity of recommendation algorithms and takedown decisions made by “an advertising infrastructure masquerading as a communications infrastructure.” 
  • Meanwhile, the president recently tweeted about a report suggesting that Google “manipulated” millions of votes for Hillary Clinton. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump thoroughly debunks the claim, which is based on non-peer reviewed research by psychologist Robert Epstein from 2015. For Mother Jones, Ali Breland spoke with academics who were similarly skeptical. And in Slate, April Glaser discusses why such unfounded claims of bias might appeal to conservatives.
  • Dark money connections: In NBC News, Brandi Zadrozny and Ben Collins report that Facebook has banned The Epoch Times, a conservative news outlet that has dropped $2 million on pro-Trump Facebook ads, for violating its ad transparency policies by using misleading page names to mask its spending. In The New York Times, Nicholas Confessore and Justin Bank profile The Western Journal, a right-wing publication with wide reach, ties to a pro-Trump PAC, and a tendency to spread disinformation—led by the man behind Citizens United.
  • In Wired, Louise Matsakis writes that Facebook has finally delivered on its promise of a “Clear History” feature—kind of. The “Off-Facebook Activity” feature, which is initially being rolled out in Ireland, South Korea, and Spain, lets users view and clear the third-party websites that share their data with Facebook. This, however, won’t actually delete the data; rather, it will disconnect it from users’ accounts.
  • For those seeking a primer on digital deception: MapLight has compiled a basic glossary of terms related to these issues, from microtargeting to botnets, deepfakes to dark money. And as Joe Uchill observes in Axios, these activities are largely legal for political campaigns under U.S. campaign finance law.
  • There have been a couple of great features recently that provide useful context for digital deception debates. For Wired’s latest cover story, Nitasha Tiku reviews how three years of internal crises and burgeoning activism have transformed Google. And The New York Times has a rich series of essays about the lessons we can learn from Gamergate, featuring Charlie Warzel, Brianna Wu, Joan Donovan, and Sarah Jeong.
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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