Decoder Newsletter: The Changing of the Guard

Margaret Sessa-Hawkins and Viviana Padelli | January 19, 2021

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!

  • Fallout: Well, it’s here, we are now 24 hours out from the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris. Even as a new administration steps in though, the debate over Trump’s suspension from multiple social media sites (now including YouTube) continued this week. For those interested in the behind-the-scenes story, NBC has published a look into Facebook and Twitter’s decision to ban Trump. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey also tweeted a thread expressing reservations about the effect the ban will have on public conversation, while still affirming the decision. In Lawfare, Evelyn Douek argues that due to the controversy of Trump’s suspension from Facebook, the company should refer the case to its oversight board to review. Facebook has also once again altered its algorithm to promote quality news sources in the newsfeed ahead of the election.

  • Research: A new report from the Oxford Internet Institute has found that more countries than ever are engaging in computational propaganda. Pew has a new research survey looking at, among other things, how many Republicans still believe electoral disinformation. In Harvard’s Misinformation Review, a new paper looks at how the ADOS hashtag was deployed at key moments to suppress Black voting, but did not express similar concern for the effect the novel coronavirus was having on Black communities. The Washington Post reports that Zignal Labs found that misinformation dropped by 73 percent after Twitter banned Trump, but Dr. Kate Starbird points out that there are many caveats and contexts to keep in mind when analyzing that claim.

  • Accountability?: House Democrats have announced that they will be looking into social media’s role in the Capitol riots. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has deflected blame, pointing to smaller and more conservative platforms. In CNN, MapLight’s Ann Ravel disagreed with this assessment, and laid out suggestions for how the incoming Biden-Harris administration should tackle disinformation. In Protocol, Emily Birnbaum looks at the possible impacts of Big Tech pausing its PAC contributions.

  • Swiss-cheese bans: But will deplatforming help to decrease extremist violence? In Wired, Wil Bedingfield looks into the research on whether deplatforming works -- and what other potential issues it raises. And, of course, bans only work if they are actual bans. Exposing the more swiss-cheesy nature of recent platform policy moves, the Center for Countering Digital Hate has a thread which examines how YouTube is still profiting off of extremist video content. Buzzfeed also reports that Facebook was showing advertisements for military gear next to posts about the DC riots. In response Facebook said it would pause US ads for ‘weapons accessories and protective equipment’ through January 22. The Wall Street Journal also reported Thursday that while Stripe had stopped directly processing donations to President Trump, they are still processing donations through a customer, WinRed. Parler has also popped back online (partially) after Amazon kicked it off its web services.

  • Around the world: In the wake of the strong action taken against President Trump, some human rights groups are arguing that the platforms are not taking equal steps to protect other countries from content that incites violence. Some international leaders, including Angela Merkel, have expressed reservations about the move. Meanwhile, in Uganda, the Communications Commission ordered Internet Service Providers to block all social media sites ahead of the country’s election, most likely in retaliation for Facebook blocking some pro-government accounts.

  • Official Twitter handles: Joe Biden tweeted for the first time from the account that will become the new @Potus handle once he is inaugurated. Twitter had previously stated that the account would have its followers reset, but there are quite a few objections to the policy. Director of the Digital Democracy project Alex Howard argued that White House accounts should be permanent and official, and accrue followers over time. In a thread, political scientist Thomas Rid points out that resetting official government social media accounts may actually help to reinforce political echo chambers.

  • But...: In some good news, Roy L. Austin Jr. has been appointed as Facebook’s new vice president of civil rights. The appointment and establishment of a civil rights organization was one of the key recommendations of a July internal audit at the company.

  • Radicalized: In The New York Times, Stuart A. Thompson and Charlie Warzel have an opinion column chronicling the journey of three individuals who went from having a fairly innocuous social media presence to propagating extremist views. The piece focuses on the echo chamber effect, as well as how much more engagement extreme content gets. Note: It’s really worth reading this through until the last sentence.
Viviana Padelli and Margaret Sessa-Hawkins | February 22, 2021
Margaret Sessa-Hawkins and Viviana Padelli | February 17, 2021
Viviana Padelli and Alec Saslow | February 12, 2021