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Digital Deception Decoder 
July 13, 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!
 
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We depend on your support to publish this newsletter. Since we launched, it’s been 1.5 years of covering everything you need to know about digital deception in our political system. Please consider making a financial contribution to this project by contacting me (hamsini@maplight.org) or donating on the MapLight website. 
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  • This week, the FTC approved a fine of $5 billion against Facebook to close out its probe of the platform’s privacy violations such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, writes Cecilia Kang at The New York Times. The platform also agreed to more stringent oversight of its management of user data. At The Verge, Nilay Patel points out that while this is the largest fine in FTC history, it’s pretty much a slap on the wrist as far as Facebook's revenue goes—which is likely why the company’s stock prices actually surged after the announcement. 
  • Experts warn that the 2020 census—which is making more use of digital technology than ever before—may be targeted by cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns, with the potential to destabilize trust in the core democratic institution, reports Chris Hamby of the New York Times. Irina Ivanova of CBS describes Facebook’s plans to release a “census interference policy” later this year, alongside plans to prevent voter suppression and voting-related disinformation in the election—which Sheryl Sandberg announced as part of the company’s second civil rights audit update.
  • 2020 deception: In Rolling Stone, Peter Wade reviews the surges in domestic disinformation surrounding former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris in the wake of the first Democratic debate. Matthew Rosenberg of The New York Times revealed that a Trump campaign consultant is behind a fake Biden campaign site, while at Newsweek, Asher Stockler spoke with experts about whether the site violates campaign finance rules. At Slate, Rachelle Hampton traces links between the false "birtherist" claims about Harris and the American Descendants of Slaves (#ADOS) hashtag, which has been deployed by both anti-immigrant black activists and bots and trolls. 
  • In the Guardian, MapLight’s Ann Ravel argues that countries must work together to combat digital deception in elections, proposing that democracies in the Americas would be well-positioned to share policy ideas. Ravel writes, “So far, no one country in the Americas has managed to address these issues on its own. An international working group composed of representatives from countries across the Americas, however, could potentially do together what we have been unable to do apart.”
  • Also in the Guardian, Tom Perkins discusses how right wing groups are taking advantage of dark money and online ad disclosure loopholes to run Facebook ads targeting the 2020 election. Between laws that allow groups to run ads under benignly named shell organizations and gaps in the company’s ad verification and transparency system, Facebook remains an easy tool for misleading voters.
  • On July 1st, California’s Bolstering Online Transparency (BOT) Act went into effect, making it the first state to attempt to curb the influence of online bots by requiring them to disclose their artificiality. According to Noam Cohen of the New Yorker, supporters cite the need to provide transparency for automated accounts that engage in politically or commercially fraudulent practices. At the Daily Beast, Taylor Hatmaker explores some of the uncertainties associated with enforcing this new law.
  • Beyond cracking down on bots, California is considering an anti-deepfake law that would make it illegal to share “deceptive” audio, video, or images of political candidates within 60 days of an election with the intent to mislead voters. At CalMatters, Ben Christopher discusses some of the potential First Amendment challenges the law presents. The Verge’s Adi Robertson looks at how Virginia’s revenge porn laws have been extended to cover deepfakes, as well as other national and state efforts to get ahead of this dangerous technique. 
  • The Brennan Center for Justice released an analysis of how H.R. 1 (the For the People Act of 2019) would address vulnerabilities in the U.S. democratic system identified in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, which found conclusive evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election. This brief outlines how H.R. 1 would help address specific susceptibilities including disinformation and propaganda, voter suppression, and foreign interference. Meanwhile, the Washington Post’s editorial board is calling for the Honest Ads Act and the Paid Ad Act (newly proposed legislation targeting issue ads bought by foreign nationals) to get a fair hearing in Congress.

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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