May 31, 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!
- Fake slurred speech: It’s been more than a week since videos edited to make it appear as though Nancy Pelosi was slurring her speech at a conference spread online -- and the response in the news has been widely critical of Facebook for failing to remove the deceptive material. Instead of taking the video down, Facebook opted to reduce the spread of the video via newsfeeds and add a small box next to the video linking to fact check articles explaining it was false. The company explained to Drew Harwell of the Washington Post that it doesn’t require “the information you post on Facebook must be true.” In BuzzFeed, Alex Kantrowitz outlines a number of arguments from disinformation researchers on why Facebook’s response failed. Katherine Kim of Vox wrote about Hillary Clinton weighing in during a commencement address, criticizing Facebook and calling the video “sexist trash.” Earlier, Congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island and Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii fired pointed tweets in Facebook’s direction. But in the MIT Technology Review, Angela Chen outlines the arguments in Facebook’s favor -- principally that removing the video “could set a precedent for censoring political satire or dissent.”
- Fake accounts: Facebook announced it had removed more than 2 billion fake accounts between January and March. Despite those large figures, Craig Silverman of Buzzfeed points out that there are still more active fake accounts on Facebook than ever before -- diving into research from the German broadcaster ZDF linking thousands of suspicious accounts to content and pages from the German far-right party, AfD, as a specific example.
- Russia watch: In case you missed it last week, NBC News broke the story of a Russian “plot to manipulate and radicalize African Americans,” potentially amplifying racial divisions in the United States ahead of the 2020 election. The reporting is based on documents obtained by the UK-based Dossier Center, which is funded by a Russian opposition figure and includes chilling details about a proposal to “recruit African Americans and transport them to camps in Africa ‘for combat prep and training in sabotage.’”
- Going indie: A new piece by Cal Newport for The New Yorker looks at the growing “IndieWeb” movement in which users opt for social media communication that’s no longer “controlled by a small number of massive public companies.” Could such a movement redeem the original promise of social media? Newport may not offer a direct prediction, but he lays out a compelling case for why we should all be paying attention.
- As the use of computer algorithms and artificial intelligence continues to expand into everyday life, what are the essential components for an algorithmic bill of rights? Sigal Samuel at Vox posed that question to 10 AI experts -- resulting in this fascinating list.
- Writing for VICE News, David Uberti tracks the shared frustration from researchers and transparency advocates with Facebook’s political ad transparency tools -- such as the publicly available API and an expanded ad library. The story carefully outlines the shortcomings of those tools while touching on the larger debate about federal regulations. Shorenstein Center fellow Dipayan Ghosh offers a potent reminder about the real lack of incentive for Facebook to improve its tools, saying “As soon as you take away Facebook’s ability to shield the targeting that it engages in, you take away the business model.”
- A social media alternative to Facebook called MeWe is turning increasingly toxic, according to an article by EJ Dickson in the Rolling Stone. MeWe currently has 5 million members and is growing quickly. Dickson explains that its policy of declining to police fake news has “created a platform for far-right extremist conspiracy theories, such as QAnon or Holocaust denialism, to thrive.
- Tracking federal solutions: A new post on MapLight offers a quick breakdown of the current legislative proposals to promote transparency and combat political deception online -- including the different bills’ chances of passing. So far, the lack of urgency and progress in Congress simply hasn’t matched the scope and scale of the problem. (On a related note, The Verge has an interesting piece about Elizabeth Warren’s latest ‘Break Up Big Tech’ billboards in San Francisco).
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