April 6, 2021

Decoder Newsletter: Should Social Media Be Considered a Utility?

Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

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. Know someone who might be interested? Ask them to sign up! 

  • Trump Twitter case moot: The Supreme Court vacated a lower court opinion that Donald Trump could not block users on Twitter — pointing out that since Trump lost the election and Twitter blocked his account, the case is moot. However, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the “concentrated control of so much speech in the hands of a few private parties” is unprecedented, and laid a case for regulating tech companies like utilities.
  • Algorithms and you: On Wednesday, Facebook’s Vice President of Global Affairs, Nick Clegg, published a blog post titled “You and the Algorithm: It Takes Two to Tango” as an attempt to combat criticism that Facebook’s algorithms are inherently harmful. Along with the post, Facebook announced new functions (many of which are in fact not new) that it says give users greater control over algorithms.
  • Analysis: Unsurprisingly, Clegg’s post generated quite a bit of controversy. Craig Silverman points out that it is most likely part of Facebook’s new pushback campaign on polarization (last week Buzzfeed broke the news that Facebook had created a ‘playbook’ for just this purpose). Vox has a piece that features quotes from some critics of the move. In it, the Real Facebook Oversight Board calls the post “a cynical, breathtaking display of gaslighting.” In The Independent, Tech Columnist Adam Smith argues that Clegg’s claim that Facebook’s algorithm does not reward provocative content is misleading. Marietje Schaake argued that many claims in the column are impossible to prove without independent research. But Shannon McGregor suggests that when talking about polarization, we need to keep in mind that social media is just part of the problem. For The Verge’s Decoder podcast, Casey Newton interviewed Clegg about the post.
  • Election laws: The Brennan Center has released its comprehensive March voting laws roundup. The report is worth reading in full, but the headline is that 361 bills have been introduced in 47 states. As we pointed out last week, social media is often used to spread the racist disinformation about election fraud that rationalizes these bills. Pew reports that in the past two years, Republicans have become less supportive of voting rights. In Popular Info, Judd Legum reports that while Facebook said it would be suspending political donations, it in fact gave $50,000 to a GOP group pushing voter suppression. CNN’s Brian Fung notes that Facebook’s response to the recent voter suppression law in Georgia is as vague as you would expect.
  • ‘For the People’ petition: Decode Democracy is part of a coalition sponsoring a petition supporting the “For the People Act,” which among many other provisions will require large online platforms to maintain a public database of all political ads, expand online disclosure rules to “electioneering communications,” and prevent foreign interference. You can sign the petition here.
  • No excuse for abuse: Given that many writers from minority groups face online harassment, PEN America has released a report titled “No Excuse for Abuse” which says that there has been inadequate platform response to this harassment, and provides suggestions for what platforms can do to help with online abuse. Similarly, The MIT Technology Review has a story imagining what an internet much less tolerant of sexism would look like.
  • Propaganda fears: The Wall Street Journal reports that some Facebook staff have raised concerns the site is being used as a conduit for Chinese propaganda. These concerns center on posts showing Muslim minority Uyghurs thriving in the Xinjiang region. The US has said Beijing is committing genocide against Uyghurs — citing forced sterilization among other measures.
  • Disinformation dozen: A new report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate suggests that more than half of anti-vaxx posts come from just twelve accounts. Bloomberg Businessweek also published an article detailing how Facebook has become the perfect platform for vaccine misinformation. For the Media Manipulation Casebook Joan Donovan, Brian Freidberg, Gabrielle Lim, Nicole Leaver, Jennifer Nilsen and Emily Dreyfuss present a “whole-of-society” approach to countering medical media manipulation.
  • Ya basta: Health misinformation in other languages often poses a significant problem, and there have been several good stories recently examining the issue in Latino communities. USA Today has an article exploring the problem. In an older story, Time reported on “Ya basta, Facebook” a group pressuring Facebook to adequately tackle Spanish misinformation. The Washington Post reports on a few groups that are trying to combat health disinformation in Latino communities.
  • New Texas bill: Citing the false idea that conservatives are censored by social media companies, the Texas Senate has passed a bill that blocks Facebook from banning resident users based on their political beliefs.
  • Research: In Nieman Lab, Madelyn Webb and Bethan John take a closer look at the data social media companies have presented around advertising and what it means when social media companies are able to control the terms of transparency. U.S. lawmakers are also requesting that Facebook, Twitter and Google turn over research into how the companies’ products affect children’s mental health.

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