Decoder Newsletter: What does a new administration mean for Big Tech?

Margaret Sessa-Hawkins | January 25, 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!

  • A New Day: Well, here we are. On Wednesday, January 20, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States of America. Despite fears, the transfer of power was smooth and peaceful, if a bit unconventional, thanks to the continuing pandemic and very real threat of violence. However, the shadow of disinformation -- and its role in the January 6 capitol riots -- was still present, and Biden addressed this directly in his inaugural address.

  • Open Letters: While there is still some uncertainty as to what the Biden administration will mean for Big Tech, many members of Congress aren’t waiting around. On Thursday almost 40 Democratic MOCs led by Reps Tom Malinowski and Anna Eshoo sent open letters to the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube, calling them out for having amplified harmful, radicalizing content that led to offline violence, and asking them to make substantive changes to their recommendation systems in response. Malinowski and Eshoo also plan to update and reintroduce a bill that amends Section 230 to hold companies accountable for spreading harmful content.

  • Responses: Jumping off from the letter, Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, has a good thread on how algorithms differentiate social media from traditional media by pushing content in front of users, rather than allowing them to choose. Far-right researcher Becca Lewis argues that YouTube’s algorithm is only one part of a larger and more complex problem with the platform. Daphne Keller from CIS at Stanford has published a piece looking at potential constitutional hurdles around amending Section 230.

  • Majority Support: Speaking of reform, a new poll from Data for Progress has found that 67 percent of Americans support the For the People Act, which calls for campaign finance reform and addressing disinformation. This support was bipartisan, although the bill was most strongly favored by Democrats, then Independents, then Republicans.

  • Oversight on Trump Ban: The Trump administration may be gone, but discussions of his social media bans continue. On Thursday, Facebook announced that it would be referring its decision to indefinitely suspend the former president to its Oversight Board. The company said that “Given its significance, we think it is important for the board to review it and reach an independent judgment on whether it should be upheld.” Facebook noted that the decision could also provide insight into suspensions of political leaders in general. To close, the company stated that it would prefer if decisions like these were made “according to frameworks agreed by democratically accountable lawmakers.” 

  • Analysis: In Lawfare, Harvard’s Evelyn Douek has a must-read on what the process will entail, why it’s significant, and what it could mean for Facebook’s Oversight Board going forward. In Platformer, Casey Newton discusses what different decisions could mean for the Board’s legitimacy, and its power. In Protocol, Issie Lapowsky wonders whether the average American will care about - or even hear about - the Board’s decision. Meanwhile the Real Facebook Oversight Board has released a statement on the referral and as you might expect… it’s not impressed.

  • Speaking of Facebook: A new report in The Markup finds that while Facebook said it had stopped recommending political groups for users to join…it hadn’t. The Markup also found many tech firms had advertisements for far-right militia content up despite a ban. The stories were made possible thanks to monitoring tools, and the organization’s Editor-In-Chief wrote a piece addressing the importance of these monitoring tools, as well as the threats to them.

  • Podcasts: ProPublica reports that while many social media platforms were banning Steve Bannon, he was still managing to spread information another way - on Apple’s podcast app. 

  • Quat now: Wednesday was not a good day for QAnon. Biden was installed as President without incident and later Ron Watkins, a former 8kun administrator strongly tied to QAnon appeared to quit the whole thing. So, what happens to the conspiracy moving forward? For NBC, Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny looked at both the disappointment and hope that followers experienced after the inauguration. In The Guardian, Julia Carrie Wong reports that white nationalists may be looking to recruit those feeling disillusioned.

  • Where’s Parler?: A federal judge has ruled against restoring Parler to Amazon Web Services. The judge validated Amazon’s right to deny the social media site service after Parler repeatedly violated terms by refusing to remove incitements to violence off its site. Parler then sued the company, alleging antitrust violations. It’s worth noting that Amazon cited Section 230 in defending its decision to boot Parler, noting that the law allows them to decide what can and cannot go on their site. In The New York Times, Candace Rondeaux and Heather Hurlburt argue that the initial migration to Parler shows self-policing by tech companies does not work, and regulation from the government is needed.

  • Plague updates: Lest we forget amongst all the political excitement, we are still in the middle of a pandemic. Sunday, on Face the Nation, former White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx claimed that someone inside the White House was creating a ‘parallel set of data and graphics’ that were being shown to President Trump. (Maggie Haberman points out that it’s interesting this information is just coming to light now...) Internationally, Gary Shih reports for The Washington Post on a new Chinese push to spread misinformation about American vaccines. In India, low vaccine takeup is possibly linked to misinformation circling on WhatsApp. In the UK and US, minority communities are being especially hard hit by vaccine misinformation. The Center for Countering Digital Hate has a thread on common anti-vaxx narratives and tactics, and how to combat them. 

  • Research: Researchers at the Social Technologies Lab at Cornell Tech and The Technion have released an analysis of a massive Twitter dataset of voter fraud claims. Interestingly, the paper found that promoters mostly linked to low-quality news websites, streaming sources and YouTube videos. This does not entirely align with the widely cited 2020 study from researchers at Harvard, which found that voter fraud claims were elite-driven (Dr. Emma Briant provides an interesting perspective on that). The paper also found that key clusters of users drove voter-fraud claims (a claim backed by Dr. Kate Starbird), and that Twitter’s recent suspensions focused more on QAnon claims rather than voter fraud.
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