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Digital Deception Decoder 

October 26, 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!

  • As this election moves into the endgame, rumors and disinformation abound regarding the over 7,000 people moving towards the United States to seek refugee status: the highly-politicized “migrant caravan.” The Washington Post’s Craig Timberg, Aaron C. Davis, and Andrew Ba Tran investigate how a decontextualized photo from 2012 has been used to falsely stoke rumors of migrant violence. In BuzzFeed, Jane Lytvynenko and Hayes Brown track other deceptive social media posts surrounding the group. (See also Lytvynenko and Blake Montgomery’s post unpacking disinformation about this week’s other polarizing story—the explosives sent to high-profile Democrats.)
  • In “Rumores Sin Fronteras,” Jonathan Albright uncovers the origins of an unfounded rumor that liberal billionaire George Soros is funding the mass migration—which started with a social media comment, moved to an op-ed, and from there was picked up on network television. Chilling results from research conducted by the DigIntel Lab’s Samuel Woolley and Katie Joseff for the Anti-Defamation League suggest that online anti-Semitism (featuring Soros prominently, but also manifesting as attacks against other Jewish leaders) has been normalized and is ramping up as the election approaches.
  • In The New Republic, Sue Halpern discusses the history and future of political microtargeting and manipulation, arguing that “The manipulation of personal data to advance a political cause undermines a fundamental aspect of American democracy: the idea of a free and fair election.” We’re already seeing new developments in U.S. politics. For instance, Politico’s Alex Thompson examines the Trump 2020 campaign’s (relative) turn away from Facebook campaigning to focus on using digital platforms to gather voters’ phone numbers. And at The New York Times, Natasha Singer and Nick Confessore explore the burgeoning ecosystem of Republican political apps.
  • Iran: Today, Facebook announced that it has taken down another 82 “inauthentic” pages, groups, and accounts originating in Iran. This batch is linked to the hundreds removed in August, but so far, the influence effort does not appear to be connected to the government. BuzzFeed’s Ryan Mac, Charlie Warzel, and Kevin Collier discuss the operation’s posts, which appear to mostly focus on general political divisiveness rather than to explicitly reference the November election.
  • Russia: This news comes on the heels of last week’s Justice Department indictment of Russian national Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova for her role running the finances for Project Lakhta—an information warfare operation intended to influence the midterms. Slate’s April Glaser looks at what the indictment says about our progress in dealing with digital disinformation, arguing that this game of “whack-a-mole” is unsustainable, and policymakers need to intervene.
  • Saudi Arabia: Meanwhile, at The New York Times, reporters conducted an in-depth investigation of the state-sponsored digital campaign to suppress dissent against the Saudi regime, including via repeated digital attacks on prominent critics such as Jamal Kashoggi. The social media strategy went so far as to groom a Saudi Twitter employee to spy on dissidents. Here is DigIntel’s Woolley talking with Bloomberg’s Selina Wang about how states around the world have adopted digital propaganda techniques.
  • According to Facebook’s latest report on its political ad archive, Beto O’Rourke’s campaign is the top political spender so far, followed by the Trump campaign. But as Recode’s Kurt Wagner and Rani Molla point out, buried in a footnote is the fact that Facebook has been, by far, the largest “political” spender on its own platform, spending $12.5 million to rehabilitate its image.

We want to hear from you! If you have suggestions for items to include in this newsletter, email them to hamsini@maplight.org. 

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