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Digital Deception Decoder 
June 15, 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!

  • Earlier this week, a video was posted to Instagram showing Mark Zuckerberg making a megalomaniacal speech about Facebook’s control of user data. Of course, the video was an AI-generated deepfake posted by artists, reports Samantha Cole for Vice. While this was mainly an awareness-raising stunt, over at NiemanLab, Nicholas Diakopoulos and Deborah Johnson have developed several all-too-plausible speculative scenarios illustrating how fake audio and video could be used to manipulate the 2020 election.
  • As these stories emerged, the House Intelligence Committee held a hearing on the threat posed by manipulated media and deepfakes. The Verge’s Makena Kelly discusses the hearing’s focus on challenging platforms’ legal immunity for third-party content, as well as recently introduced legislation intended to combat such malicious uses of technology.
  • At NextGov, Ambassador Karen Kornbluh (German Marshall Fund) and Rutgers information policy scholar Ellen Goodman look to the history of media policy in the U.S. for lessons on fighting online disinformation. Meanwhile, at WIRED, Renee DiResta suggests that we learn from successful efforts to combat spam to tackle the spread of disinformation, while Omer Benjakob teases out insights from Wikipedia’s model.
  • While some are looking to counter the ongoing and evolving digital threats facing democracy, others—specifically, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)—are intent on pretending the problem has been solved, writes Nicholas Fandos in The New York Times. McConnell is blocking multiple election security bills, including some with bipartisan support, such as the Honest Ads Act and a bill that would improve cyber-information sharing between federal intelligence agencies and state election officials.
  • Again in WIRED, former Facebook product manager Antonio García Martínez provides a useful primer on the distinction between discriminatory ad targeting and discriminatory ad optimization (mainly in the context of housing and job ads, though the lessons translate to the political arena as well).
  • Also in WIRED, Andy Greenberg details how Jigsaw, Google’s technology incubator, bought a troll campaign to manipulate Russian politics for only $250 as part of an experiment to understand the underground market fueling disinformation. Greenberg also discusses the questionable ethics and implications of the research.
  • Foreign propaganda online: At Reuters, Paresh Dave and Christopher Bing discuss new research showing that 14 YouTube channels linked to the Russian government received billions of views and may have generated millions dollars in ad revenue—without being labeled as state-sponsored accounts. Meanwhile, The Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain unmasks a supposed Iranian activist—whose commentary on Iran has appeared in multiple U.S. media outlets, and whose Twitter following numbered in the tens of thousands—as (most likely) a fabricated puppet operated by Iranian opposition group Mojahedin-e-Khalq.
  • At The Dialogue, Ben Raderstorf and Michael J. Camilleri have published a policy brief examining what Latin American governments can learn from online disinformation in the United States, drawing on MapLight and the DigIntel Lab’s policy framework. If you’re in the Bay Area and would like to learn more about this framework, please join us on the evening of June 27th for a discussion with Ann Ravel (MapLight; former FEC chair) and Katie Joseff (DigIntel Lab).

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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