Digital Deception Decoder 

February 8, 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!

  • They grow so fast! Monday marked the 15th anniversary of the founding of Facebook. WIRED’s Issie Lapowsky has a handy guide to 15 defining moments in the company’s history. Also for the occasion, Vox asked 15 influencers (including Malcolm Gladwell, Sherry Turkle, Ro Khanna, and Meredith Broussard) to reflect on the platform’s impact on humanity to date. Recode’s Kara Swisher nails it: “Facebook moved fast, Facebook broke things. I think the only question now is: Can Facebook fix the things it broke?”
  • Last week, Facebook announced the charter of a board—which Zuckerberg dubbed its “Supreme Court”—to provide independent oversight of content decisions. The company will seek feedback on this structure in coming months. For WIRED, Lapowsky delves into the challenges this body will no doubt face, as well as the power of its role governing speech.
  • On a related note, this essay from Janosik Herder in Public Seminar offers a thought-provoking argument that the biggest challenge that tech platforms present—above and beyond lack of transparency or deteriorating public debate—is how their power to govern threatens the democratic state.
  • "Why am I seeing this?" Josh Constine reports in TechCrunch that Facebook is adding a new Custom Audiences transparency feature to the informational dropdown on ads. The feature will show users when and how advertisers uploaded their contact information, in addition to the basic targeting information currently provided. It’s one step forward, one step back for transparency though: ProPublica’s Jeremy B. Merrill and Ariana Tobin report that Facebook has blocked the access of independent ad transparency tools, including ProPublica’s own Political Ad Collector.
  • In a development that’s worth watching, Germany’s Federal Cartel Office—the country’s competition regulator—has ordered Facebook to restrict how it combines user data from various sources, including WhatsApp, Instagram, and third-party websites, without explicit user consent, according to the BBC.
  • Grain of salt: Political scientist Brendan Nyhan reviews and contextualizes research about the scale of fake news in the 2016 and 2018 elections in order to combat hype about the problem. Nyhan doesn’t dismiss the concerns for democracy; rather, he writes, “...none of these questions can be adequately addressed without creating a reality-based debate that puts fake news in context as just one of the many sources of misinformation in our politics.”
  • In a rather meta (if unsurprising) twist, Special Counsel Mueller’s team revealed that hackers accessed, altered, and leaked discovery materials from the case against Yevgeniy Prigozhin—the Russian businessman indicted for his role funding the Internet Research Agency troll farm—to spread online disinformation about the investigation.
  • A new study out of USC attempted to analyze Twitter to determine whether election manipulation occurred during the 2018 midterms. The researchers found that several factors complicated their ability to draw conclusions about offline voter behavior, including population bias, bots, and political ideology inference. As Tucker Higgins points out in CNBC, the study also implies that bots were quite active around the 2018 midterms; more than 20% of users tweeting in the weeks surrounding Election Day were pegged as bots.

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