Decoder Newsletter: So Long 2020

Margaret Sessa-Hawkins and Viviana Padelli | December 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!

  • Adblock screw up: Brand safety companies including Oracle, Integral Ad Science, and Comscore have been blocking ads from running on reputable news sites while directing them to outlets that spread hate speech and disinformation, reports the newsletter Branded. Brand safety companies exist to help corporations place ads on sites that are ‘safe’ and thus avoid potential boycotts. However, they seem unable to distinguish between articles that report on hateful and extremist incidents, and actual hateful and extremist content. One company, Grapeshot, marked one-third of New York Times articles as unsafe for advertisers, while One America News Network was marked as 88.5% safe.

  • Addressing disinformation: Maplight is part of a coalition of organizations calling for the Biden administration to act on disinformation along with Accountable and Avaaz. In an open letter, the coalition calls for Biden to add a disinformation expert to the COVID-19 task force, to apply the Voting Rights Act to voter suppression efforts, and to create a national website for debunking disinformation. 

  • President-elect: Twitter has updated its misinformation labels to clarify that Joe Biden is President-elect of the United States. Previously, when a user tweeted out electoral misinformation, the tweet would be labeled with a message saying the election was “disputed.” Now, the label reads “Election officials have certified Joe Biden as the winner of the US Presidential election.”

  • Bots and retweets: Twitter has also announced that as part of its revamped verification process, it plans to label bots and other automated accounts. The company has rolled back one potential change though, restoring its traditional retweet function. CNET reports that a change prompting people to quote tweets instead of retweeting, which was meant to decrease misinformation, didn’t really work.

  • TGIFacebook: On Friday (its preferred day to release news), Facebook put out a report on its efforts to maintain election integrity. Among other skeptical reactions on Twitter, Evelyn Douek panned the report as “transparency theater” and pointed out that nothing in the summary “gives us any more information to evaluate the measures Facebook took.”

  • Bye “nicer newsfeed”:  The report might have been met with a bit more credibility if The New York Times had not previously reported that Facebook has rolled back changes to its algorithm that weighted news from authoritative sources over partisan sites -- creating a “nicer newsfeed”. The rollback was a reminder that Facebook’s moderation measures often clash with its business model. As Eric Lutz commented in Vanity Fair, “The “nicer newsfeed” may be better for the world ... but it may not be better for business.”

  • Georgia runoff: Speaking of measures being rolled back, Facebook has also announced that it will be altering its political ad ban policy to allow political ads in Georgia’s runoff election. The news comes after the voter registration deadline has passed and after early voting has already started, highlighting once again just how much power Facebook’s policies have in shaping electoral politics.

  • Information disorder: What role did mis-, dis-, and malinformation play in the 2020 election? In a new collaborative project between the Knight Foundation and the Yale Information Society Project, 19 researchers examine this question. They discuss different approaches to fighting disinformation, the value of evidence over intuition, and what misinformation might look like over the next four years.

  • Europe & Big Tech: The European Union has announced new proposals to curb the spread of illegal material online in the bloc -- including hate speech and counterfeit products. Under the Digital Markets Act and the Digital Services Act, proposed Tuesday, large tech companies will need to allow regulators access to internal data and appoint independent auditors to determine if they are compliant with new rules on curbing illegal material -- or face fines of up to six percent of their revenue.

  • Troll war twist: Facebook has said individuals affiliated with the French military used fake accounts to influence African politics. The French accounts were also apparently fighting fake Russian accounts for influence politics in several nations. Graphika has more on the operations in a report titled “More-Troll combat”. (Very punny guys). Politico Europe reports France is not entirely happy Facebook publicly announced the existence of the fake accounts and questioned the company’s motives as the report came out right on the same day as the Digital Services Act proposal.

  • Tackling vaccine misinformation: Facebook has announced a new method to try to fight COVID-19 misinformation. The company will now send a notification to users who have interacted with a post that violates the platform’s terms of service. The notification will take users to a landing page that has a screenshot of the post, as well as an explanation for why it was removed. In The Verge, Ian Carlos Campell has a pretty comprehensive sum-up of the strategy’s flaws. Twitter also announced that it will remove misinformation about the coronavirus vaccine.

  • Predicting disinfo: Researchers at the University of Sheffield have developed an artificial intelligence algorithm that can apparently predict which users are likely to share disinformation before they do so. The algorithm also found that the users were more likely to post about politics and religion, and more likely to use impolite language.

  • More antitrust: A new antitrust lawsuit alleges that Google edged out advertising rivals, as well as reaching an agreement with Facebook so the two companies would not be competing for ads. In the Washington Post, Steven Pearlstein looks at why the antitrust lawsuits we’re now seeing against Big Tech are critical not just for the tech industry, but for the future of antitrust legislation. He also points out that the cases will be debated in Congress, which both affects and is affected by what happens to Big Tech. In Harvard Business Review, Dipayan Ghosh examines the wider issue of what tech policy will look like under President Biden.

  • No deception here: We’d like to close out by letting those who were concerned know that Dr. Fauci confirms Santa has been vaccinated.