Decoder Newsletter: A Vaccine Is Coming, Misinformation Is Already Here

Margaret Sessa-Hawkins | December 14, 2020

Produced by MapLight, 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!

  • Tackling vaccine misinformation: The first coronavirus vaccine has been given in the U.S., but concerns about how misinformation will affect the roll out are rife. Five lawmakers sent President-elect Biden a letter Thursday urging him to add a misinformation researcher to the COVID-19 task force (Twitter feels Dr. Joan Donovan would be a good pick). Google also announced that it would be launching search panels with accurate vaccine information which will appear in search results. The Lawfare Podcast had a great episode Thursday on addressing vaccine misinformation, and why we might not be doing enough to counter it. First Draft also published an article looking at how we’ve failed to address health disinformation in 2020, and what needs to be done -- on an international scale -- to improve in 2021.

  • The infodemic continues: A new poll out of Imperial College London found that fewer than half of the respondents surveyed in 15 countries would be willing to get a vaccine, while iNews reports that Britons who get their news from WhatsApp or YouTube are more likely to believe anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. FiveThirtyEight has analyzed some of the poll numbers behind who is and isn’t willing to get a vaccine in America. UC Berkeley held a discussion (available on Youtube) with four data science experts discussing the origins of the infodemic, and how to address it. 

  • Profits over people: In Buzzfeed, Craig Silverman and Ryan Mac have published a must-read on Facebook profiting off of scam ads and disinformation. The piece is startling, even for those with already-cynical views on social media. One anonymous source summed the company’s strategy up as, “[Facebook] will take any cent that they can get on anything. …They do not care whatsoever as long as they’re making a dime out of it.” Another stunner of a Buzzfeed article (also by Mac and Silverman) looks at the company’s failure to address hate speech. Check out the ‘Hate Bait Dashboard’ in particular. Evelyn Douek has a great thread analyzing the article. The Facebook articles show how big a problem it is that we can’t measure misinformation as Axios details. A new paper in Havard’s Misinformation Review contemplates what researchers could do if more social media data was available.  

  • The harm of electoral misinformation: As the Electoral College certified President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, there were more reports of electoral disinformation leading to real-world violence this week. Michigan had to close its legislative buildings due to threats of violence, while last week armed protestors surrounded the Secretary of State’s house, and another Michigan lawmaker received lynching threats. It’s not just in America, electoral disinformation about the U.S. election has spread to Europe, where it could also engender distrust in the electoral process. The Washington Post has a running compilation of examples of electoral disinformation. 

  • New trends in disinformation: A new article in Lawfare looks at how governments are outsourcing disinformation. The result is that, “Facebook and Twitter … increasingly attribute operations not to governments, but to firms.” And speaking of new sources of disinformation, The Guardian reports that podcasts are becoming repositories for misinformation.

  • Google ad ban lifted: Google has lifted a political advertising ban it imposed to cut down on digital disinformation following the election. The move comes less than a month before runoff Senate races in Georgia, which has upended the campaign’s digital strategies. Facebook, which also imposed a political advertising ban, has not yet stated when it will be lifted.  In the meantime, advertisers are getting around those bans by going to other platforms, emphasizing the need for government regulation on this issue.

  • Well finally: Youtube, which has faced widespread criticism for its approach to disinformation in the wake of the election, has announced that it will begin removing claims of electoral fraud from its platform. 

  • Youtube radicalization: Speaking of Youtube, a report into the attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, has found that the shooter was radicalized on Youtube. Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has said she will raise the issue of radicalization ‘directly’ with Youtube’s leadership. In The Guardian, Becca Lewis points out that Youtube’s attempts to stay apolitical meant that it was effectively watching for Muslim radicalization, not protecting Muslims from white radicalization.

  • Facebook antitrust: The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as well as 46 states, the District of Columbia and Guam, have launched an antitrust case against Facebook, alleging that the company maintained a monopoly through anti-competitive practices -- especially with its purchase of Instagram and WhatsApp. In Time, Roger McNamee argues that disinformation comes, in part, from Facebook’s flawed anti-competitive business model.  In Platformer, Casey Newton analyzes the government’s case, and gives his opinions on the suit. In a New York Times p-ed, Kara Swisher argues that the suit could actually check some of Facebook’s power.

  • Section 230 again: President Trump threatened once again to veto the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) Sunday, as it does not repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The NDAA was passed with a veto-proof majority, but some Republicans have said they will not override a veto if the President chooses to issue one. Bruce Reed, Biden’s top tech policy advisor, has written an op-ed about the harms of Section 230 (which Mike Masknik of Tech Dirt does not agree with) while Nancy Pelosi has said the shield needs to be revised, not overturned. In the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s blog, Elliot Harmon argues that what Trump really wants isn’t to overturn Section 230, it’s to weaken the First Amendment.