Decoder Newsletter: Big Tech & Antitrust

Margaret Sessa-Hawkins | July 31, 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!

  • A congressional panel on antitrust heard from the CEOs of online giants Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple at a hearing Wednesday. The tech leaders argued that they do not violate antitrust laws, and face plenty of competition both from other companies and each other. Many lawmakers, however, weren’t buying it. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was grilled about his company’s purchase of potential rival Instagram as well as the company's role in spreading disinformation online and its response to the #StopHateForProfit Campaign. Meanwhile Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos faced questions about his company’s use of data from third-party sellers. In Wired, Eve Sneider takes a closer look at some of the documents behind those exchanges. Geoffrey A. Fowler wrote about times when the moguls might not have been completely truthful for The Washington Post, while The New York Times kept track of each CEO’s propensity to repeat certain catchphrases, including “We are good for America” and “We are not the ones to worry about”.

  • Republicans, meanwhile, mostly resurfaced unfounded claims of an anti-conservative bias online. President Trump has long asserted social media companies in particular have a political bias, even going so far as to issue an unenforceable executive order against them. At the hearings, Republicans repeated these claims in a partisan divide that could have consequences over whether any action is ultimately taken against the tech companies.

  • Speaking of action, you may be wondering whether the hearing will lead to any real change. For Vox, Peter Kafka argues that the hearing won’t have much bearing on any eventual regulations, but that it might help the companies face up to some long-overdue public accountability. Axios, though, reports that Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) told the publication Facebook does not have substantial competition, and so should not have been allowed to buy Instagram or WhatsApp. The New York Times also featured an in-depth profile of legal scholar Lina Khan and her efforts to reframe monopoly law. On a parallel track, MapLight’s Ann Ravel connected the dots between the power large tech companies have accumulated and the need for Congress to thoughtfully reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
  • Come November, we will be voting in the midst of a pandemic. What will this process be like? What challenges will it bring? In a new report, MapLight provides a detailed look at the many threats to the electoral process this November, from voting while COVID-19 is still widely circulating, to already existing gaps in U.S. electoral law. The report, summarized by Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post, outlines overarching risks to the election while providing insight into the specific laws and procedures regulating elections in 17 swing states.

  • Trump cannot delay the next presidential election. Despite this fact, the President spent much of Thursday suggesting to the public that he might. The tweet where Trump floated the idea was filled with a repetition of his unfounded aspersions on voting by mail. In response, MapLight joined roughly 50 organizations in quickly reminding the President that only Congress has the power to move the election.

  • The QAnon conspiracy theory has been spreading across Europe, according to a new report from NewsGuard. While the theory had long been associated with America, the report charts how it has been adapted in different European countries, merging with local conspiracy theories. Last week, Twitter announced a crackdown on accounts spreading the theory, The Guardian spoke with several experts to see if efforts to halt the spread of conspiracy theories online are effective, or if they only serve to strengthen theorists’ paranoia and beliefs.