Decoder Newsletter: Climate Change & Combating Misinformation

Margaret Sessa-Hawkins | September 21, 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!

  • New Climate Information Hub: In a blog post last week Facebook announced the launch of its new Climate Information Hub. The page contains general information about global warming, as well as news stories on the topic. In Earther, Brian Kahn offers a concise and incisive criticism of the center, and for Popular Information Judd Legum and Emily Atkin teamed up for a deep dive into why the center isn’t an effective approach. A handful of environmental groups have also called on Facebook to do more to stop climate disinformation on the platform. 

  • Speaking of climate disinformation: False stories about the fires in Oregon are still spreading on Facebook, despite the company’s pledge to remove such posts. For NBC opinion, Pat Garofalo points out that Facebook has very little financial incentive to stop the spread of these conspiracy theories. In a fun twist, researchers in Australia have also found that the spread of misinformation around the Oregon fires is ‘strikingly similar’ to disinformation that spread in their country earlier this year.

  • Tools combatting disinformation: MapLight has launched new tools to help users fight digital deception on social media, including a browser plug-in called the Election Deception Tracker as well as a Text-to-Report line for people to report misleading information. The Election Deception Tracker allows users to easily capture false or misleading posts about the election or voting from Facebook, and send it to a team of election protection advocates who will analyze the information and push for its removal. 

  • Regrets Reporter: Meanwhile Mozilla has come up with a tool meant to deal with the radicalizing tendencies Youtube’s recommended videos algorithm. Users can tell a browser plugin, the ‘RegretsReporter’ when the platform recommends a harmful video, which will hopefully shed more light on how the platform’s recommendation algorithm works.

  • Facebook’s ties to Trump: The cover story of Bloomberg Businessweek this week is an in-depth look at Facebook’s relationship with Trump. The story examines policies and decisions the company has made that benefit conservatives, at Facebook’s recent failures to enforce its own policies against the President, and analyzes how these factors contribute to the spread misinformation and could influence the outcome of the election.

  • Foreign disinformation: In testimony given before the House Homeland Security Committee Thursday, FBI director Christopher Wray affirmed that Russia is still trying to influence the U.S. election toward President Donald Trump, largely by creating fake accounts on social media. Trump tweeted his displeasure about the testimony, and did not deny, when asked, that he would consider removing Wray over his comments.

  • Domestic disinformation: An affiliate of the conservative youth organization Turning Points USA has been hiring teenagers to create social media posts that supported Trump and espoused campaign talking points -- efforts that seem to echo those of Russian troll farms that plagued the 2016 election. To try to stem the tide of domestic disinformation, the New York Times has launched “Daily Distortions,” which will track viral disinformation ahead of the election. To help counter disinformation in Spanish (where efforts have mostly been missing),Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network has created “FactChat,” in cooperation with Telemundo and Univision, to translate fact checks into Spanish and share them more widely. 

  • Twitter’s new Election Hub: Twitter debuted its new election hub Tuesday. The hub, which appears at the top of U.S. users’ “explore” tab, features new tools including election news from journalists, live streamed events like debates, and nonpartisan PSAs designed to help voters participate in the elections.

  • Changes to Groups: Facebook, meanwhile, has announced changes to its “groups” policies. According to the company, the changes are meant to reduce “harmful content and misinformation.” The biggest changes are that both administrators and moderators of groups taken down for violating policies will not be able to create new groups for a period of time, and the platform no longer shows health groups in recommendations. For TechCrunch, Sarah Perez points out why the actions are far too little, too late.

  • Global Political Manipulation: BuzzFeed News obtained a copy of a staggering memo in which recently-fired Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang detailed scores of incidents where fake accounts were used to boost political campaigns and manipulate public opinion around the world. Facebook’s oversight on these events was minimal, according to Zhang, who wrote, “I have personally made decisions that affected national presidents without oversight, and taken action to enforce against so many prominent politicians globally that I’ve lost count.”

  • COVID disinformation bill: Senators Gary Peters, Amy Klobuchar and Jack Reed have introduced a bill to create a COVID-19 Misinformation & Disinformation Task Force. Led by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA), the task force would be responsible for  coordinating the response to misleading information about the coronavirus pandemic.

  • The Hype Machine: As we have learned more than ever this year, social media can be an incredible tool for connecting families and friends, yet it can also be a destructive force, spreading misinformation and hateful messaging. In his new book “The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health — And How We Must Adapt” MIT professor Sinan Aral looks at how we can better take advantage of the promise of social media, while avoiding its pitfalls. The MIT Center for Information Systems Research will be hosting two virtual events where Aral discusses the book on Sept. 23rd and 24th. You can find more information and sign up here