May 10, 2021

Decoder Newsletter: Trump’s Lingering Effect on Digital Deception

Margaret Sessa-Hawkins & Viviana Padelli

With the Facebook Oversight Board’s Trump decision finally in, this week’s Decoder delves into the implications and consequences of what is generally being referred to as the board’s ‘punt,’ as well as comments and criticisms of the Oversight Board itself. We also examine a digital deception campaign against the “For the People Act” and the danger posed by the “big lie.” Know someone who might be interested in a weekly roundup of digital deception news? Ask them to sign up! 

  • THE decision: On Wednesday the Facebook Oversight Board took Facebook’s decision to indefinitely suspend Donald Trump — which the company had punted to it — and punted it right back. Predictably, there were a few (unhappy) takes. Jameel Jaffer, director of Columbia’s Knight First Amendment Institute, applauded the decision though. Color of Change pointed out that the move provides an opportunity for Facebook to allow more racism to flourish on its platform. A survey from the Pew research center has found that Americans are actually fairly evenly, and partisanly, split on whether the former president should be allowed back on Facebook. In Lawfare, Evelyn Douek analyzed what the decision means for Facebook’s rules, and the Oversight Board’s review of cases.
  • It’s the algorithm, stupid: In CNN, Decode Democracy’s Ann Ravel argues that the problem isn’t so much the things Trump posted, it’s how Facebook’s algorithm elevated them. For Popular Info, Judd Legum points out that the Oversight Board asked for clarification on how Facebook elevated Trump’s posts, but the company declined to give it. In the wake of this revelation, Public Citizen has written an open letter asking Mark Zuckerberg to “make public any internal analysis about how Facebook’s design features contributed to the events of January 6.”
  • Going further: Both Vox and Axios used separate data sources to show that social media interactions about Trump fell by around 90 percent once he was banned from platforms. In the New York Times, Adam Satariano and Cecilia Kang examine the role Nick Clegg — current Vice President of Global Affairs for Facebook and former Deputy Prime Minister of the UK — played in shaping the company’s policy on Donald Trump. Ryan Goodman linked the Oversight Board’s decision to the Biden administration’s choice to join the Christchurch call to curb online extremism, saying that both focus on a human rights framing. Bloomberg Government has a good roundup of Congressional measures to rein in Big Tech.
  • “For the People Act” disinformation: A markup on the “For the People Act” will be held tomorrow at 10am Eastern. Huffington Post has a good sum-up of changes to the bill that will be debuted, and a live video stream can be found here. Meanwhile, Decode Democracy has found opponents of the act are using an online disinformation campaign to erode its widespread bipartisan support, and tying it to conspiracy theories about voter fraud.
  • Facebook data plagues: This past week Signal tried to run an ad campaign on Instagram telling users exactly why they were being targeted by a particular advertisement, but Facebook quickly disabled Signal’s ad account. The social media platform is also going to severely limit WhatsApp functionality for users who don’t share their WhatsApp data with Facebook. A group of Attorneys General has also written an open letter asking Facebook to stop developing an ‘Instagram for kids’ app, citing mental health concerns, as well as skepticism that Facebook will be able to protect the welfare of its youngest users.
  • The Big Lie: The GOP seems ready to replace House Republican Conference chair Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo), who has not supported conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, with Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) who has. Meanwhile, the Washington Post has published an investigation into the origins of the election-fraud myth, and one man’s role in propagating it. In Arizona, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division has written a letter to the president of the Senate alleging a ballot recount in Maricopa County violates federal law by jeopardizing the security of ballots, potentially setting up a conflict between state and federal authorities.
  • The Big Lie II: Speaking of the big lie, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis Thursday signed into law a series of new voting restrictions — in a ceremony broadcast live on Fox news. With the bill, Florida becomes the latest state to impose voting restrictions, while many more are considering similar measures. In the Columbia Journalism Review, Jon Allsop points out that the Florida bill is another sign the myths of the big lie are spreading, and becoming an attack on all communities of color and their right to vote.
  • Fake Comments Commission: A new report from the New York Attorney General finds that almost 82 percent of comments on net neutrality made to the FCC were fake. Most of the fake comments were funded by the broadband industry. Camille Francois of Graphica breaks down some of the reasons the comments are so concerning. In Tech Policy Press, Justin Hendrix argues that the comments are a harbinger of future automated disinformation. Fight for the Future, the group which prompted the investigation, has called for broadband executives to face criminal charges.
  • Twitter’s news: Twitter received a large volume of responses to its survey on how it should handle world leaders on the platform. At issue is whether world leaders should get special treatment on social media because their tweets are inherently more newsworthy. Separately, Twitter has announced that it will be introducing prompts encouraging people to edit “harmful or offensive” replies. Twitter tested the feature last year, and says it led to significantly nicer tweeting.
  • Blown away: The FEC has decided to drop a case reviewing whether Trump violated campaign laws when his lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid hush-money to two women during the 2016 campaign season. Brendan Fisher of the Campaign Legal Center cites the decision as another reason the “For the People Act” must pass, citing an open letter from Ann Ravel and Trevor Potter about FEC reforms needed so that the group is once again able to enforce election law.
  • AAPI disinformation: Harvard’s Shorenstein and Ash centers hosted a virtual event looking at disinformation’s impact on AAPI and LatinX communities. A recording is available here. In the Juggernaut, Snighda Sur writes about misinformation and racism about the South Asian community spreading on WhatsApp and Facebook.
  • Research: Kate Starbird has a thread on how ‘participatory disinformation’ contributed to the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. Harvard’s Misinformation Review looks at how Covid-19 has changed the face of fact-checking. The Australia Institute explores how building public digital infrastructure could lead to improved civic discourse online. The Markup has found that Facebook is allowing advertisers to target ads to individuals based on their interests in subjects such as “bourbon,” “oxygen,” and “Diabetes mellitus awareness.” Flurry has found that only 5 percent of Apple users are opting into mobile tracking.

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