June 14, 2021

Decoder Newsletter: Can Social Media Combat Voter Suppression? 

Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

Last week we learned, with an op-ed by Joe Manchin, that the ‘For the People Act’ is facing an uphill battle. WIth the news, concerns about voter suppression which has recently been fueled by digital disinformation rose. But can regulating social media be used to counter voter suppression? We explore that question in this week’s Decoder, as well as take a look at a racist astroturfing campaign, and racial equity in Big Tech. Know someone who might be interested in a weekly roundup of digital deception news? Ask them to sign up! 

  • Critical Race Theory: On Friday, Lorenzo Franceschi Bichierai reported for Vice that protests against teaching about systemic racism in New York Public schools were in fact part of an astroturfing campaign led by Rick Berman, a man frequently referred to as ‘Dr. Evil’. The day before, in The New Yorker, Benjamin Wallace-Wells examined conservative efforts to control how schools teach about systemic racism. Julia Carrie Wong’s previous analysis in The Guardian of states trying to legislate the issue is also well worth a read.
  • Racial Equity: Racial equity in Big Tech is also back in the news as Tom Simonite took another in-depth look at the firing of Timnit Gebru for Wired, exploring what it means for the future of criticism and scholarship on artificial intelligence. And last week a group of ten congressional representatives sent a letter to Google asking the company to perform a racial equity audit.
  • Inauthentic behavior: In The Guardian, Julia Carrie Wong reports that a series of ads promoting Green party candidates in the 2018 midterm elections were actually run by the conservative Turning Point USA. The group purportedly behind the ads, American Progress Now, was taken up before the Federal Election Commission at the time for failing to file proper disclosures, but the case was dismissed after the group pleaded ignorance on what disclosures were required. Decode Democracy’s Ann Ravel, formerly Chair of the Federal Election Commission, told The Guardian that had the case arisen under her tenure, she would have referred it to the Justice Department, as it seems “a clear fraud.”
  • QAnon: QAnon is dead, long live QAnon. That’s essentially the gist of Q headlines this week. First, in the LA Times, Virginia Heffernan argued that QAnon is effectively winding down. Extremism researcher Marc Andre Argentino disagreed with the article’s premise, saying it was extremely misleading. He has a thread discussing the evolution of QAnon and what questions we should be asking about the changes. In a similar vein, in Codastory, Caitlin Thompson interviewed Jared Holt, a researcher who reported on QAnon phrases disappearing from the mainstream online lexicon. The upshot of the conversation was that QAnon isn’t gone, it’s just morphing into what he refers to as ‘second gen QAnon’.
  • Political bias: Two interesting stories came out this past week on how many conservatives bash Facebook while still using the platform to great effect. In The Washington Post Philip Bump asked why many conservatives claim there is  anti-conservative bias on Facebook when conservative content consistently dominates the site. For CNN, Oliver Darcy pointed out that Newsmax in particular is a hallmark of this trend, consistently bashing Facebook in its broadcasts, while advertising extensively on the site.
  • Research: New data from the Pew research center looks at how Americans decide which news stories to trust, and finds that in addition to sources cited and outlet names, many rely on their gut. Graphika discovered a campaign by suspected Russian operatives to target individuals on the far-right. For the Knight Columbia First Amendment Institute, Daphne Keller looks at some of the problems with regulating the so-called ‘free reach’ of social media. A paper presented at the 15th AAAI conference on web and social media found that Google is responsible for nearly half of all ad traffic to fake new sites. Tech Policy Press has an article summarizing the findings. 

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