May 17, 2021

Decoder Newsletter: How Does Disinformation Affect World Events?

Margaret Sessa-Hawkins & Viviana Padelli

From India to Israel, international events have been dominating the headlines recently. How does disinformation affect these incidents? In this week’s Decoder we look at how disinformation plays into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the explosion of covid disinformation in India, and whether Facebook is beginning to face a reckoning in South Africa. On the domestic front, we examine disinformation in Black Lives Matter protests, voting rights, and why public opinion is down on tech companies. Know someone who might be interested in a weekly roundup of digital deception news? Ask them to sign up! 

  • Voter disinformation: In the New York Times, Maggie Astor has a new profile of how disinformation fuels voter suppression laws. As Astor points out, “The bills demonstrate how disinformation can take on a life of its own, forming a feedback loop that shapes policy for years to come.” In Democracy Docket, Marc Elias looks at how the Big Lie has become a central tenet of the Republican party, and how crucial it is to fight the narrative. On Tuesday, the Senate took a big strike at voter suppression, advancing S.1 (also known as the For the People Act) over Republican dissent. However, in the Washington Post, Mike DeBonis reports that the overall outlook for the bill is rather grim. The act has been subject to an online disinformation campaign, as Decode Democracy recently reported. Meanwhile in Michigan, a bill has been introduced that would require fact-checkers to register with the state.
  • EOs revoked: President Biden revoked a number of former-president Trump’s executive orders on Friday, including the so-called ‘Preventing Online Censorship’ order. The original executive order was meant to stop social media companies from engaging in content moderation, and was widely criticized as being unconstitutional. Due to its unconstitutionality and damage to content moderation, Decode Democracy was one of a coalition of organizations calling on President Biden to revoke the order.
  • Israeli-Palestinian conflict: The New York Times reports that digital disinformation is helping to inflame tensions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Content moderation isn’t always fit for purpose either. Buzzfeed reports that Instagram blocked posts and hashtags about one of Islam’s holiest mosques because its content moderation system associated the site with terrorist organizations. Buzzfeed says that, “The mistake is just the latest content moderation failure by Instagram and its parent company Facebook, which has faced accusations from users around the world that it’s censored content about Israeli aggression toward Palestinians.” In the Intercept, Sam Biddle writes about how Facebook’s secret rules on how the word ‘zionist’ is moderated impede criticism of the Israeli government.
  • The riot squad: In The Intercept Robert Mackey and Travis Mannon profile eight right-wing journalists who have captured many of the viral videos of rare violence at Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. They write that despite the fact that BLM protests are overwhelmingly peaceful, these images have, “helped create the false impression, relentlessly driven home by Fox News and Republican politicians, that the nationwide wave of protests that erupted after George Floyd was killed was nothing but an excuse for mindless rioting.” Dr. Joan Donovan has a twitter thread that pulls on previous reporting to add further context to the story, arguing that, “we must look at what happens online as co-occurring “in real life.” That means no more talk of “real world harms” by social media companies because it’s all the same world.”
  • Public opinion down on tech companies: As WhatsApp rolled out its new privacy update, Burcu Kilic of Public Citizen and Sophia Crabbe-Field of Democracy write in The Guardian that we should all be worried about the data it shares with Facebook. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus also wrote an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking the company to reverse the terms of service update. Possibly on a related note, a new Axios/Harris 100 poll has found that Americans’ opinion of Big Tech has reached new lows during the pandemic, with Facebook and Twitter firmly occupying the lowest rungs of all.
  • Hello Europe: On Tuesday, Germany ordered Facebook to stop collecting WhatsApp data from German users for three months over concerns that the new terms of service violate EU law. Then on Wednesday Britain introduced a law that simultaneously seeks to decrease online abuse while also strengthening freedom of expression. On Thursday, a content moderator for Facebook testified before the Irish Parliament, saying that ‘every day was a nightmare’ and speaking about the harms caused by the non-disclosure agreement she was forced to sign, as well as the relentless onslaught of violent content she was forced to watch.
  • Hello world: This week in Rest of World Vittoria Elliott looks at how laws that would require social media companies to hire local staff could in fact end up endangering those workers. In a similar vein, Tech Policy Press examined the silencing of social movements by social media platforms. In other news, South Africa has become the first African nation to call for Facebook to appear before its Parliament over concerns about misinformation. In .Coda Mariam Kiparoidze reports that covid mis and disinformation is on the rise in India as the virus explodes throughout the country.
  • The black badge of blocking: In The Atlantic, Will Oremus writes about how Clubhouse’s blocking system is a new form of content moderation, and one that could prove problematic as the app rolls out on Android. Wired also reports that emergent video streaming service Rumble is also prompting viewers towards misinformation. In Politico’s Digital Bridge, Mark Scott points out that there’s a plethora of extremist content circling on fringe social media networks.
  • Research: GLAAD has released a social-media safety index, which looks at LGBTQ+ safety across social media platforms, and makes recommendations for the industry at large. A new study from Brookings analyzes the crucial role polarization plays in spreading fake news. Algorithm Watch has found that image classification algorithms at Apple and Google are still exhibiting a bias that results in the pushing of racist tropes. Dr. Chris Bail has placed all the lectures from his Data Science and Society class at Duke online. Dr. Kate Starbird has a twitter thread on the most retweeted tweets from the ‘stop the steal’ movement. A study from the Global Network on Extremism and Technology looking at the messaging in violent right-wing extremist forums found anti-semitism, conspiracry theories, and even anti-alt-right messaging to all be highly prevalent.

Produced by Decode Democracy, 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. We value your privacy and will not send you unwanted emails. If you wish to limit your emails to just our weekly Decoder news roundup, please email info@decode.org.

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