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Digital Deception Decoder 
July 13, 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!

  • Today, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers (members of the group known publicly as “Fancy Bear”) for interfering with the 2016 presidential election by hacking the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, as well as attacking state and local election infrastructure. The indictment offers a detailed breakdown of the tactics the Russians used.
  • Information war: NPR has found 48 Twitter accounts affiliated with the Russian Internet Research Agency posing as American local news outlets. Unlike other social media tactics deployed by Russian agents, these accounts never spread false information, instead focusing on building credibility by sharing authentic local news with their followers (likely a long-term stratagem).
  • InfoWars: CNN’s Oliver Darcy reports that Facebook continues to wrestle with the boundaries between protecting free speech and policing disinformation, with company representatives struggling to articulate why the platform continues to allow notorious conspiracy theory site InfoWars to operate.
  • BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel reports that as of this week, Twitter will no longer show locked accounts in users’ follower counts, leading to steep drops for certain public figures. This is part of Twitter’s crackdown on fraudulent accounts; as Craig Timberg and Elizabeth Dwoskin recount in the Washington Post, Twitter has been suspending upwards of a million accounts per day for suspicious activity.
  • The Social Science Research Council and Social Science One commission have released their first request for proposals on social media and democracy, which will provide grants of up to $50,000 to researchers, as well as access to Facebook data. The first dataset that will be made available (codebook for download here) covers Facebook URL shares, including users’ age, gender, region, and ideological affiliations. Per Robbie Gonzalez at WIRED, researchers will have to pass through multiple rounds of review to ensure that they will handle the data securely.
  • The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office announced that it will fine Facebook £500,000 (approaching $700,000) for failing to inform people about Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of their profile and friends’ data. Meanwhile, WIRED’s Issie Lapowsky discusses another company that had extended access to Facebook users’ friends’ data: Russian internet company Mail.ru. While there’s no indication (so far) that Mail.ru misused this data itself, a diplomat quoted in the article points out that Russian intelligence services would likely have access to it.
  • Lapowsky also looks at YouTube’s initiatives to combat the spread of conspiracy theory videos, which focus on elevating news sources it deems authoritative and supporting journalism with tools and funding. “As it walks the fine line between openness, profitability, and living up to its responsibility to the public, YouTube is less focused on getting rid of the hoaxers than it is on trying to elevate journalism it considers valuable.”
  • Missed this a couple of weeks ago: Technologist Tim Chambers breaks down a novel disinformation tactic that surfaced on Twitter around immigration policy and the family separation crisis. In a variant of hashtag hijacking, automated accounts promoted “decoy hashtags,” misspelled variants of #FamiliesBelongTogether, in order to dilute the influence of the original hashtag.

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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