June 28, 2021

Decoder Newsletter: Social Media and Democratic Decay

Margaret Sessa-Hawkins & Viviana Padelli

It’s been clear for a while there are legitimate reasons to be worried about the health of our democracy from insurrections to the undermining of voting rights to the decline of local news media. But what role does social media play in these events? In this week’s Decoder, we take a look at that question and examine how different policy measures are attempting to address the problem. Know someone who might be interested in a weekly roundup of digital deception news? Ask them to sign up! 

  • The Big Lie: One of the most pervasive threats to our democracy is the undermining of trust in the electoral process. The Washington Post has an article on the Trump supporters who have spent millions on efforts to promote and spread lies about the integrity of the 2020 election, including on social media. Meanwhile, state senate republicans in Michigan who were investigating the election have found no widespread or systemic voter fraud. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has announced a special session of the legislature, presumably to work on a voter suppression bill that died in the regular legislative session after Democrats walked out.
  • Voting rights: A Democratic legislative priority that has been touted as a way to combat voter suppression bills took a hard hit Tuesday when Senate Republicans used the filibuster to block debate on the ‘For the People Act’ — which would strengthen voting rights, enact campaign finance reform, and limit gerrymandering. In the absence of federal reform, some state legislatures are passing their own measures to protect voting rights.
  • A threat: The Big Lie also presents new security concerns to democracy. An official with the Department of Homeland Security has told Congress that the conspiracy theory that Trump will be ‘reinstated’ as President in August is worrying. While the official said he was unaware of any specific threats linked to the theory, he is nervous about its potential to incite violence. A One America News Network host has also denied he called for the mass execution of American citizens for election fraud crimes that amounted to treason. In the Washington Post, Lee McIntyre of Boston University and Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institute argue that Americans are not fully recognizing the threat the Big Lie poses to our democracy.
  • Jan. 6 commission: In a move to investigate what happened the last time a conspiracy theory amplified online led to attempted insurrection, Nancy Pelosi has announced that she will launch a select committee to examine the January 6 Capitol riots. Senate Republicans previously blocked a measure to create an outside commission to investigate the matter. ProPublica also has a new article reporting that senior Trump aides had reason to worry about the Jan. 6 rally, but did not warn Capitol police.
  • Regulation: This week saw renewed bipartisan efforts to regulate the influence of the tech industry. The House Judiciary Committee advanced six bills on Thursday that could radically change the way Big Tech operates. Decode Democracy’s legislative hub has information on all six of the bills, and tracks how close they are to becoming law. In the New York Times’ ‘On Tech’ column Shira Ovide takes a look at how we got to this point, and what the bills would change. Predictably, Big Tech was not happy with the development. For Gizmodo, Shoshana Wodinsky took a look at who funds the groups lobbying against the bills.
  • Trump PAC ads: Although Donald Trump himself was suspended from Facebook for two years for his role inciting the Jan. 6th riots, his political action committee (PAC) is still running fundraising ads on the site, reported the FWIW newsletter. Facebook stated the ban on Trump does not extend to groups affiliated with the former president, despite the fact that the group is directly controlled by Trump.
  • Harming local news: The decline of local news sources is often cited as another factor leading to increased polarization and lowered trust in media. Now, Judd Legum and Tesnim Zekeria report in Popular Info that Facebook’s algorithm devalues local reporting. The pair found that one of Facebook’s top-performing pages, The Daily Wire, actually aggregates news from other sources, but gives it an inaccurate or incendiary spin. This benefits The Daily Wire, but not the local news outlets that produced the original story. On a similar theme, an interesting article in Tech Policy Press looks at potential frameworks that could be used to discuss the extent to which social media companies should be held responsible for democratic decay.
  • Racism and disinformation: In the Columbia Journalism Review, Jon Allsop looks at how disinformation is frequently used to prop up racist and sexist social structures by examining the ongoing fallout from UNC’s decision to deny Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure after a rich donor objected to her work on the 1619 project, and how it is related to the ongoing disinformation campaign surrounding critical race theory.  In the Senate, Ted Cruz has introduced a bill intended to block federal funding for any training that teaches critical race theory in workplace training.
  • Ban surveillance advertising: Decode Democracy is part of an international coalition calling for a ban on surveillance advertising, a practice where data on users’ internet habits is used to create a profile of them for advertising purposes. In an open letter to US and EU policymakers, we argue that the practice violates user privacy, as well as causing discrimination, and we call for legislative reform that would ban the practice. Speaking of ad tracking, Google has said that it will be delaying the phase out of its tracking cookies, in order to “get this right.” Meanwhile, John Bergmayer of Public Knowledge reminds everybody that Google’s cookie alternative, the Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), was nothing more than a “cockamamie scheme” to prevent user cross-site tracking.
  • Section 230 lessons: As legislators look at regulation, a new report from the Government Accountability Office is looking into how effective previous efforts have been. The report, which examines the FOSTA-SESTA law nullifying Section 230’s immunity for cases of sex trafficking, found that it is almost never used. In the Washington Post, the editorial board lays out what lessons this could hold for future regulatory efforts, especially around Section 230.
  • Research: A new study finds that those with conservative political leanings are not more likely to endorse false political information. The authors argue that previous research showing a political bias in an individual’s propensity to believe false information did not account for the fact that disinformation currently favors conservative narratives. A new report summarizes the 25 policy solutions to come from the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy’s social media summit. MIT’s Sinan Aral has a good thread summarizing key bullet points.

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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