May 24, 2021

Decoder Newsletter: The Insidious Effect of Disinformation Campaigns

Margaret Sessa-Hawkins & Viviana Padelli

This past week’s news highlighted just how much of an effect disinformation campaigns can have. From the continuing vote recount in Maricopa county, to Nikole Hannah-Jones being denied tenure and the firing of Emily Wilder, we are being reminded that disinformation campaigns can severely upset systems we rely on — government, education, the media. As depressing as this can seem, we’re also seeing baby steps to try to combat digital disinformation — as we outline in this week’s Decoder. Know someone who might be interested in a weekly roundup of digital deception news? Ask them to sign up! 

  • Maricopa update: The Maricopa County Attorney sent a litigation hold letter to leaders of the Arizona audit, reports ABC Arizona, signaling that legal action against the audit leaders is being considered. The letter comes after a tweet containing a false accusation against Maricopa county from the audit’s Twitter account went viral. The recount of ballots in Arizona is also pitting county Republicans against state Senators, reports Yvonne Wingett Sanchez in the Arizona Republic. In the Washington Post, Dan Zak has written a longform piece delving deep into the conspiracy theories and propaganda that prompted the recount, and looking at the ways in which it threatens American democracy. For those interested in how social media contributes to the thread of conspiracy theories underpinning the recount, Kate Starbird has an interesting twitter thread tracking the spread of one particular story.
  • Electoral disinformation: In a special edition of Popular Information, Judd Legum and Nick Surgey report that large companies are collaborating with the Republican State Leadership Council on a policy working group on “election integrity” — whose chairs also happen to be “stop the steal” supporters. A new Ipsos Poll has also found that over half of all Republicans believe the election was rigged. In The Washington Post, Cat Zakrzewski reports that the Democratic National Committee is overhauling its counter-disinformation unit to focus on Republican politicians and right-leaning publications with large followings.
  • Disinformation hit jobs: Both the University of North Carolina (UNC) and the Associated Press made headlines this past week for giving in to right-wing pressure campaigns against women. In the first case, UNC denied tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, a MacArthur grant recipient and Pulitzer Prize winner, who is also the driving force behind the New York Time’s 1619 project. In the second case, the AP fired Emily Wilder, a new reporter, ostensibly over pro-Palestinian tweets. Both incidents were the result of right-wing campaigns, but regarding the latter incident especially, Janine Zacharia points out that the AP failed to recognize a disinformation campaign. She further notes that journalists are frequently targets of these campaigns, and re-ups a playbook on how to deal with them.
  • January 6th commission: The House voted Wednesday to establish a commission to look into the events of January 6th. Decode Democracy applauded the commission, noting that understanding the events that led to the Capitol attack and the role weaponized disinformation played in these events is pivotal to protecting the integrity of our democracy. However, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has come out against the commission, lessening its chances of passing in the Senate.
  • Combatting AAPI harassment: President Biden has signed legislation that aims to combat hate crimes against Asian Americans. The Covid crisis saw a rise in both online misinformation and hate speech against AAPI individuals, as well as a corresponding rise in harassment. Decode Democracy views the legislation as a good first step, while continuing to urge platforms to do more to combat online hate and harassment.
  • DATA Act: Reps. Lori Trahan and Kathy Castor introduced the Social Media DATA Act, which would require large social media platforms to maintain ad libraries and direct the Federal Trade Commission to set up a stakeholder group tasked with identifying best practices for sharing social media data with researchers. Decode Democracy has hailed the bill as a positive measure toward increasing the online advertising transparency that is essential to our democracy. In Protocol, Issie Lapowsky and Ben Brodie examine how the bill would help researchers trying to study social media companies.
  • Facebook transparency center: Speaking of transparency, Facebook launched a new transparency center on Wednesday. New America’s Spandi Singh has a thread analyzing the new features.
  • Research: A new report from Graphika (summed up in the Washington Post) has found that Chinese businessman Guo Wengui is tied to a sprawling network promoting disinformation and conspiracy theories. In The Conversationalist, Jasmin Mujanovic writes about social media and the rise of a “synthetic democracy” heavily influenced by bots, algorithms, and disinformation. In the Columbia Journalism Review, John Bowers, Clare Stanton and Jonathan Zittrain look at how many of the New York Times’ article hyperlinks have ‘rotted’. In MIT’s Technology Review, Karen Hao explores investigations into potential harms of large language models in the wake of Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell’s firings.

Join the fight
against online
political deception.