November 22, 2021

Decoder Newsletter: Climate and Covid Disinformation Collide

Margaret Sessa-Hawkins & Viviana Padelli

A book full of covid disinformation has become a best-seller in Amazon’s documentary section, while climate disinformation continues to spread in the wake of COP 26. While these two strands of disinformation are spreading separately, conspiracy theories around the two subjects are beginning to merge. We take a look at why this is happening in this week’s Decoder, as well as look at whether Facebook may finally be wrestling with some of its failures on civil rights. The Decoder is a weekly roundup of news about digital deception. Know someone who might be interested? Ask them to sign up!

The Decoder will be taking a break for the holidays. We’ll be back soon.

  • Disinformation on Amazon: A book full of disinformation on the covid crisis has become a best-seller in Amazon’s documentary section, as noted by postdoctoral fellow Joe Bak-Coleman. The prominence of the book, especially in a “documentary” section, gives rise to a whole host of questions about algorithms and disinformation. Kate Starbird of the University of Washington argues that the ranking shows once again how much algorithms and sites like Amazon are pushing fringe content into the mainstream. Renee DiResta of Stanford Internet Observatory has a very informative thread looking at how books and movies based on disinformation rise through the rankings — and how regulatory questioning seems to be the only method of prompting action from companies.
  • Climate disinformation: Researchers from the Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD) have released a report finding that climate disinformation overwhelmed posts released by reliable scientific organizations during the COP 26 climate conference. Cecile Simmons of ISD has a good thread summarizing the findings. Reuters also reported on a series of ads containing climate denial that ran during the COP, while in The Nation, Amy Westervelt writes about the crucial role of tackling disinformation in the fight against climate change. For the BBC, Marianna Spring writes about covid conspiracy theories merging with climate conspiracy theories, and the role telegram has played in their spread.
  • Misleading Measurements: The Markup published an article this week looking at Facebook’s deliberate obfuscation of how often right-wing content appears on its platform. Corin Faife wrote that Facebook’s “Widely Viewed Content” reports measures which links users see — but not how many times they see a particular link. Using The Markup’s Citizen Browser project data to measure impressions instead — the total number of times a link appears in a newsfeed — Faife found that extreme right-wing sites such as The Daily Wire and The Western Journal moved more than 100 places up in the rankings.
  • Funding Disinformation: In The MIT Technology Review, Karen Hao writes that Instant Articles, a program run by Facebook, enabled clickbait farms around the world — but especially in the Global South. The program allows publishers to host their articles directly on Facebook, thus allowing the platform to capture more ad dollars. In a Twitter thread, Hao notes that many of these sites would not exist without the payments from both platforms.
  • Civil Rights: Meta (the company formerly known as Facebook) has released a report on its progress following recommendations from its Civil Rights Audit. For NPR, Shannon Bond writes that the company has also announced that it will start collecting data to measure whether it treats users differently based on race. Meanwhile, in The Washington Post, Elizabeth Dwoskin, Nitasha Tiku and Craig Timberg report that Facebook rejected a plan to protect minority users against hate speech and abuse — fearing it would protect some vulnerable groups over others.
  • Newsfeed Control: Facebook has announced that it is introducing more ways for people to control and customize their newsfeeds. In The Verge, Kim Lyons writes about Facebook’s history of messing with the Newsfeed, for better and for worse. In The Washington Post, Will Oremus writes about Facebook’s conviction that it, not users, should be in charge of what people see in their newsfeed.
  • Confirmations: Jonathan Kanter has been confirmed to lead the Department of Justice’s antitrust unit. In Protocol, Ben Brody has a write up on the confirmation. The requests for his recusal are already rolling in.  Alvaro Bedoya, a privacy expert, also seems likely to be confirmed as Commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission. JD Supra has a write up on his Senate confirmation hearing.
  • Research: In Rest of World, Nilesh Christopher and Andrew Deck examine the research on Instagram’s impact on teen mental health in the Global South. In Protocol, Sarah Roach reports that internal documents show lonely people spend more time on Facebook, and that spending time on the platform doesn’t necessarily hurt them, but it doesn’t necessarily help either.

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