Decoder Newsletter: Big Tech Under Biden

Margaret Sessa-Hawkins | November 16, 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!

  • Biden & Big Tech: With the speculation and tension of election week finally over, theories of what a Joe Biden presidency will mean for Big Tech are beginning to surface. Despite hiring tech execs to his transition team, Biden is expected to take a harder line with tech companies than his predecessors. He will probably revoke some of the protections provided by Section 230, continue with antitrust lawsuits, and potentially oversee the return of net neutrality. Of course, a divided Congress could also affect how much Biden is able to do. In The New Yorker, Glenn Gerstel argues that not ‘fixing’ social media presents a national security threat. 

  • Electoral disinformation: Donald Trump, still unhappy with the election’s outcome, continues to spread disinformation. In response, Facebook and Google are extending their ads ban, an action that probably won’t affect misinformation, but could affect ongoing elections. Twitter is still placing labels on tweets that include electoral disinformation, but has rolled back many of its other approaches to electoral disinformation. YouTube has said it wants to encourage a ‘discussion’ of the election results, a decision it has defended. Despite the responses, misinformation continues to spread

  • Jumping platforms: As we mentioned in the last decoder, the threat of content moderation on more mainstream social media outlets has seen many conservatives jumping to alternate platforms such as Parler. Now, the app -- which was the most downloaded on Android and Apple devices most of last week -- has gotten backing from prominent conservative activist Rebekah Mercer. 

  • We’re not political: On Tuesday, Facebook released a blog post essentially arguing that what most people see on Facebook has little to do with politics. The post was trying to hit back against journalists’ use of CrowdTangle, which identifies posts that get the most engagement, by pointing to posts that get the most reach. In OneZero, Will Oremus discussed the data on either side, while in Engadget, Karissa Bell offered a more overt critique of Facebook’s blog. Not to be outdone, Youtube released its own misleading statistic Thursday.

  • Steve ‘Ban’non: Mark Zuckerberg is having to defend his decision not to suspend former Trump adviser Steve Bannon from the platform after he called, in a video, for the beheading of two senior government officials. Although Bannon has said his comments were clearly metaphorical, Twitter took the video down and banned him. Facebook has taken down a widespread network of pages tied to Bannon for spreading electoral misinformation, but did not remove Bannon’s page. Evelyn Douek explains why the decision cannot be reviewed by Facebook’s new independent Oversight Board (unless the company itself refers the case). 

  • Vaccine misinformation: While many celebrated the news that a coronavirus vaccine was on the horizon, it also brought in its wa a plethora of disinformation. In order to get an idea of what global vaccine disinformation looks like, researchers at First Draft created a report on the thousand most popular social media posts on vaccines in three languages -- English, Spanish and French -- to see what the digital landscape around a vaccine rollout will look like. Clare Wardle sums up some of their findings in The Boston Globe.

  • Brazil elections: Municipal elections in Brazil were held yesterday, and, as in the US., the campaign season was marked by disinformation. Also like the US, efforts to stop disinformation were stymied by platform jumping, efforts by political surrogates and the professionalizing of disinformation campaigns.

  • QAnon?: What will happen to QAnon, a conspiracy theory based on the idea of Trump as a savior, now that he has lost the election? It’s a question complicated by the resignation of Ron Watkins (who many believe to be the most recent incarnation of Q) from Q’s online message board 8kun. Insider looks at different strands of adherents to the conspiracy theory, and how they might react, while The Guardian chronicles why this year has made people particularly susceptible to conspiracy theories. In Nature, researcher Aleksandra Cichoka explains why it’s better to prevent conspiracy theories than counter them -- and how this could be done.

  • Living room vs. Town Hall: In the Knight First Amendment Institute’s blog, Ethan Zuckerman and Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci look at the rise of chat apps, and how they represent a ‘living room’ to social media platforms’ ‘Town Hall’, and what that means for the spread of disinformation.