Decoder Newsletter: Are policy changes coming for Big Tech?

Margaret Sessa-Hawkins | February 08, 2021

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  • You’re out: Thursday Democrats voted to strip Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) from her committee assignments in response to her espousal of conspiracy theories and calls for violence against elected officials. The move is a precedent-setting response to Republican refusals to condemn Greene’s dangerous disinformation. Before the vote, Greene blamed Facebook for introducing her to conspiracy theories. In a Twitter thread, The New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose highlighted some of the more problematic aspects of Greene’s comments.

  • Mercer dismisses Parler CEO: Parler CEO John Matze said he was fired by the company’s board. Matze claims the board is controlled by conservative mega-donor Rebekah Mercer. In an interview with NPR, Matze cited his desire to introduce content moderation as the reason for his ouster. Salon has an in-depth piece examining how Mercer has fueled misinformation and extremism.

  • Parler & Trump: Separately, Buzzfeed reports that Parler agreed to offer Donald Trump a 40% stake in the company if he made it his primary social media network. The talks between the Trump Organization and Parler occurred over the summer, and then again after he lost the election. Matze told Axios he didn’t like the idea of working with Trump and that the proposition didn’t get very far.

  • Policy priorities: Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.) has said that looking into the spread of disinformation will be one of his priorities as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, as it examines anti-government extremism in the United States. Separately, a bipartisan majority of the House Homeland Security Committee has endorsed passing new laws to address domestic terrorism which will include being able to “monitor and regulate the environments in which extremist ideologies proliferate,” reports The Washington Post.

  • Antitrust: Sen. Amy Klobuchar has introduced sweeping antitrust legislation meant to rein in Big Tech. The Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act of 2021 is “the most serious legislative salvo against Big Tech in years,” reports Protocol

  • Section 230: Sen. Klobuchar, along with Sens. Mark Warner and Maize Hirono have also introduced a new bill to amend Section 230 called the SAFE TECH act. The bill would strip immunity for cases involving harassment, civil rights, intimidation and wrongful death, as well as for paid advertisements. While several civil rights organizations such as ADL, EPIC, Common Sense, and Color of Change have endorsed the proposal, the MIT Technology Review published an analysis looking at some of the potential pitfalls of the proposal.

  • White Privilege: Since we’re talking about policy changes, and who makes them, it’s worth giving a read to this thread on white privilege in tech from Bertram Lee Jr. of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

  • CISA reprioritizes: The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has decided to reevaluate its role in countering disinformation. The move is an implicit criticism of former director Chris Krebs (who was fired by Trump for saying the election had been fair and secure) and the Rumor Control fact-checking page. Acting director Brandon Wales has said the agency will focus on getting “back to basics — providing the best cyber and physical security products and services and guidance to election officials.”

  • New hire: Alondora Nelson has been named as the first deputy director for science and society in the Biden administration, Protocol reports. Emily Birnbaum dives into her background and what to expect from her. The appointment of Nelson, who has a background in researching the intersection between race and technology, has been met with widespread support from AI ethicists and civil rights advocates.

  • Better Big Tech?: In The New York Times, Kevin Roose speaks to experts about how the Biden administration can combat disinformation. One suggestion is to have a centralized task force to combat all misinformation (health and electoral) led by a ‘reality czar’. 

  • Tiktok fact-checking: The social media company will now add banners to content it can’t verify.

  • Code of conduct: The Wikimedia Foundation has introduced a new code of conduct which is meant to reduce harassment and foster diversity.

  • Disinfo goes private: The New York Times has a new article examining disinformation in private messaging apps. Examples of disinformation spread on WhatsApp in particular have been rife for a while now, but HKS’ Misinformation Review has a particularly relevant study looking at coronavirus misinformation, WhatsApp and politics in Brazil. On a similar theme, David Pierce looks at the Clubhouse exclusivity problem in Protocol’s Source Code.

  • No Trump, no change: Despite the oft-repeated supposition that Twitter needed Trump as much as Trump needed Twitter, Alex Kantrowitz reports in Big Technology that according to new data, Twitter’s banning of Trump hasn’t really changed how or how much people use the social media network. In Slate, Danielle Citron and Hany Farid argue that Trump should be permanently banned from most social media outlets.

  • Vaccine insights hub: First Draft has launched a vaccine insights hub, which contains insights into vaccine misinformation and how to tackle it. Speaking of vaccine misinformation, The Hill reports that anti-vaxx groups are suing social media companies over their clampdowns on vaccine misinformation. Despite these clampdowns, anti-vaccine information continues to proliferate on the sites, with The Washington Post reporting that a recent anti-vaccine protest that temporarily shut down the Dodgers Stadium inoculation site was organized on Facebook.

  • Research: A new Nature article looks at how Trump has changed the study of conspiracy theories. A graph visualizing the suspension of Twitter accounts (mostly associated with QAnon) in the wake of the January 6 Capitol riots is featured in the article as well. PhD student Andrew Beers has a thread explaining how he created the graph and what insights it provides.


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