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Digital Deception Decoder 
August 17, 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!

  • Essential reading: Technosociologist Zeynep Tufekci traces how social media’s role in democracy has devolved from the promise of the Arab Spring to the present state of digital disinformation and propaganda. “Power always learns, and powerful tools always fall into its hands.”
  • The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab has released a new analysis of the 32 pages and accounts involved in a coordinated political influence operation that Facebook took down last month, concluding that the effort likely originated in Russia. Their findings are presented in three parts: the origins of the accounts, their attempts to manipulate offline political protests, and how they masked their efforts (learning from the ways they were detected in the 2016 elections). Related: WIRED’s Issie Lapowsky reports on DFRLab’s partnership with Facebook, which enables investigations such as this one.
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher Young Mie Kim has released a new memo demonstrating that the Internet Research Agency’s ad buys were intended not only to intensify political division, but also to target and suppress the votes of nonwhite voters. According to their analysis, events promoted by the IRA specifically targeted nonwhites, and the agency appeared to use messaging that promoted racial identity and community in order to identify targets for subsequent vote suppression efforts. For The New York Times, Natasha Singer explores how this ties in to broader concerns about political microtargeting.
  • On the brighter side, this week, Google joined Facebook and Twitter in releasing a searchable political advertising database for U.S. elections, including overviews of spending by state, congressional district, and advertiser. Fun fact: the top political advertiser (since May 31) is Trump’s Make America Great Again Committee. Reporting for Gizmodo, Rhett Jones discusses what information you can and can’t find in the archive; issue ads are notably absent.
  • The public debate around social media content moderation continues apace. In the LA Review of Books, Robert Gorwa discusses Microsoft Research scholar Tarleton Gillespie’s new book, Custodians of the Internet, looking at the necessity for “platforms” to step in and the challenges they face. In the Washington Post, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s David Greene argues that, while moderation of speech may be inevitable, it must be grounded in human rights principles, including transparency and accountability for what gets removed. And Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey talked to the Washington Post about changes the company is exploring in the context of their Alex Jones debacle (after suspending Jones on Tuesday).
  • Fake views: The New York Times takes us into the market for fake YouTube views, exploring the tactics used by sellers—including the infamous “follower factory” Devumi.com—to game popularity. Customers have included Russian government-funded news network RT and Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity, among other organizations.  
  • Two articles in the MIT Technology Review this week examine developments that may shape the future of deceptive digital politics: Will Knight dives into the possibilities of AI-generated deepfakes and their implications for democracy, while Elizabeth Svoboda looks at the emerging field of “neuropolitics consultants,” who may or may not be more effective at manipulating voters than Cambridge Analytica was.

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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