July 12, 2021

Decoder Newsletter: The Capitol Riots Six Months Out

Margaret Sessa-Hawkins & Viviana Padelli

It has been six months since a group of angry protestors stormed the U.S. Capitol, fueled by false claims from the President that the election had been stolen. Half a year later, the administration has changed, but threats to our democracy remain. In this week’s Decoder we look at those threats, the role social media plays in abetting and promoting them, and what’s being done to combat them. Plus we examine an interesting study from the Mozilla foundation, and developments in an Indian lawsuit against Facebook. The Decoder is a weekly roundup of news about digital deception. Know someone who might be interested? Ask them to sign up!

  • Six months on: Tuesday marked the six month anniversary since the riots on the U.S. Capitol. Decode Democracy Policy Director Ann M. Ravel argues that we need to keep pressing Congress to analyze the role social media companies played in the insurrection. For CNN, Sunlen Serfaty, Devan Cole and Alex Rodgers report that while the riots were in progress, then-president Trump was calling Senators and trying to convince them to overturn the election results. For Media Matters for America, Kayla Gogarty reports that Facebook is still allowing content that promotes lies about the election.
  • Voting rights: Further concerns about the integrity of American democracy were stoked by the Supreme Court’s decision at the beginning of the month to gut most of what remains of the Voting Rights Act. At the state level, the Texas legislature has advanced a bill that would place new restrictions on voting. In Vice, Cameron Joseph looks at the Republicans who are using lies about the election to bolster possible Senate campaigns. In the Washington Post, Matt Viser reports that civil rights leaders are pressing the Biden-Harris administration to do more to protect voting rights. In the Atlantic, Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that these moves and more show the Republican party is behaving in an anti-democratic manner and poses a risk to American democracy itself.
  • Twitter & hate: In keeping with the trend of platforms not doing enough to safeguard democracy, Southern Poverty Law Center released a report Wednesday finding that Twitter is not doing enough to check far-right actors on its platform. The report also found that Twitter helped to enable the January 6 riot at the Capitol, and that if the company continues with current practices, it will most likely enable politically motivated violence again.
  • Executive order on antitrust: Moves to reign in the power of tech companies have also continued over the past week. On Friday President Biden signed an executive order meant to crack down on Big Tech. The order addressed Big Tech’s anti-competitive behavior, as well as encouraging the FTC to establish rules on surveillance and data collection. Decode Democracy’s Viviana Padelli has a good thread on why the EO will be good for America’s democracy. In Yahoo Finance, Daniel Howley and Alexis Keenan explain why the order is mostly targeting Facebook and Amazon.
  • FTC on antitrust: In other antitrust news, the Federal Trade Commission rescinded a policy that limited its ability to stop anticompetitive business tactics. The decision could change whether or not the FTC views Facebook’s behavior as anti-competitive. In video comments submitted to the FTC’s open commission meeting, Decode Democracy’s Ann Ravel argued that the previous ‘consumer welfare standard’ did not account for some social media harms to consumers such as privacy violations or data collection. Politico has also summarized some takeaways from Lina Khan’s debut as FTC chair. In the Washington Post, Ron Knox explains how we got to this point in antitrust history.
  • Anti-trans disinformation: In the same legislative session where it advanced restrictive voting measures, Texas Republicans are hoping to pass bans on transgender youth participating in sports teams. Decode Democracy previously reported on the harmful and misleading anti-trans ads that are proliferating on Facebook as these bills spread across the country. The Guardian has a video piece looking at the evolution of this legislative attack, examining especially the lack of any scientific data to support the bills. A separate piece maps out the bills in useful infographics.
  • India’s lawsuit: India’s Supreme Court has ruled that Facebook’s possible role in deadly religious riots last year must be investigated. While the social media company had argued it was merely a platform hosting third party information, the court disagreed, and expressed concern about, “the increasing concentration of power in companies like Facebook, more so as they are said to employ business models that are privacy-intrusive and attention soliciting.”
  • YouTube regrets: The Mozilla Foundation published the results of one of its most interesting studies this past week. The foundation asked people to report ‘YouTube regrets’, i.e. whenever they watched a video, or series of videos, they later regretted. As Mozilla readily notes, the methodology is unusual, one that centers on lived experiences and stories rather than quantitative data. The ultimate findings though, underscore overarching points we see often in collecting articles for the Decoder, namely that algorithms are putting videos in front of people that they don’t want to see, that videos often violate YouTube’s own policies, and that non-English speakers are hit hardest.
  • Research:  A new paper in the American Political Science Review looked at the roots of Trump’s support. Interestingly, the paper posits that there is a nonpartisan faction in American politics that responds to the hatred of marginalized groups, and can be recruited by either party. Bellingcat also has an examination of white nationalism, looking at nazi memes, and the mainstreaming of white supremacist violence. Speaking of research, it’s worthwhile to check out this Codastory article on attacks on the sciences that are proliferating in various countries around the world.


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