March 1, 2021

Decoder Newsletter: Twitter’s Changes, Paywalls, and Disinformation

Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

Produced by MapLight, 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!

New from Twitter: Thursday Twitter unveiled two new upcoming features — Super Follows and Communities. With Super Follows users can charge followers for additional content, while Communities are a bit more like Facebook Groups. Nieman Lab reports that the ‘Super Follows’ feature is especially appealing to journalists.

Analysis: The Super Follows feature has again given rise to discussions about content monetization. Emily Dreyfuss has a great thread on the problems caused when news is behind a paywall but disinformation is free. Dr. Sarah Roberts has a thread looking at a similar theme, but with Substack. There was also a panel discussion on whether news should be treated as a good or service in Feb. 24’s On Point episode on Australia/Facebook that is well worth a listen.

Re-friended?: Speaking of Australia and Facebook, they are back on good terms after the latter turned off the former’s access to news on its platform last week. Facebook agreed to restore the content after the government promised to make changes to the draft legislation, and explained its rationale in a blog post *actually titled* ‘The Real Story of What Happened With News on Facebook in Australia’. For Nieman Lab, Joshua Benton argues that Facebook basically got everything it wanted. Facebook, along with Google and Twitter, has also agreed to adopt a voluntary code to curb disinformation in the country.

Stuff on quitting Facebook: The Reuters Institute this week talked to Sinead Boucher, the CEO of Stuff, New Zealand’s number-one ranked news site, about the company’s decision to quit Facebook. Stuff had initially dropped all advertising from the platform following the streaming of the Christchurch mosque attack. Stuff’s traffic hasn’t dropped significantly since quitting the platform, but they worry about their ability to reach those exposed to disinformation on Facebook. Boucher’s response is “why should we pay to help them clean up their misinformation problem?”

Conflict of interest?: Discussions over how access and funding potentially create conflicts of interest for academics and journalists covering the technology sector arose again this week. The discussion came following the publication of a report on Facebook groups by NYU’s Governance Lab that was funded by Facebook. Then, Buzzfeed reported that New York Times columnist David Brooks had published a column supporting Facebook groups on Facebook’s corporate website to help launch the report. Joan Donovan has a thread on why these interactions can be problematic.

Facebook responds to Oversight Board: In Lawfare,  Evelyn Douek breaks down Facebook’s reaction to the Oversight Board’s recommendations. The takeaway is that while the response is better than you might expect, there’s still a lot more they could do.

Google political ads return: As of Wednesday, Google had begun accepting political ads again, Axios reports. The tech giant had stopped all ads following the insurrection at the US Capitol.

Social media & global politics: India is putting in place new regulations for social media firms as well as WhatsApp, the Wall Street Journal reports. The guidelines are apparently meant to combat the rise of problematic content including disinformation and violent or exploitative content. Facebook has also banned the Myanmar military from its platform, citing severe human rights abuses and ongoing ‘content and behavior violations’. ProPublica also reports that in 2018, Facebook acceded to the demands of the Turkish government and blocked posts from a Kurdish militia group from being seen by users in Turkey, a decision that currently remains in force.

Climate disinformation: A new report on how disinformation spread across Facebook in the wake of the Texas snow storms shows that the company is not living up to its promise to combat climate lies. The report from human rights groups Avaaz, which was shared with USA Today, shows that false claims about wind turbines causing power outages were not labeled as false, and were allowed to spread across the platform.

Antitrust is coming?: Protocol reports that Republicans and Democrats were mostly in agreement during the first House antitrust hearing — a fact that could prove problematic for Big Tech. A House meeting on Disinformation and Extremism in the Media, however, went in another direction, breaking down along partisan lines.

Voting Rights: In another example of how disinformation can affect actions and policies, The New York Times reports that Republicans in state legislatures are using lies about the 2020 election to promote efforts to change voting rules, including some measures which aim to outlaw private donations to help administer elections. An older article by Judd Legum on Popular Information also delves very deeply into this theme, and the risks it poses to Democracy.

Racialized disinformation: Columbia Journalism Review has an interview with the former Mayor of Stockton, California, Michael Tubbs, which provides a crucial perspective on racialized disinformation and how it can thrive in news deserts.

Events: MIT will be hosting a digital social media summit on April 22, 2021. The event will feature a host of high-profile researchers and activists, as well as Facebook’s Nick Clegg. More information, a schedule and how to register can be viewed here. The Knight Foundation’s Virtual Media Forum will take place from March 2-4, and will look at polarization and the fracturing of the media economy. Mozilla’s virtual MozFest, which looks to create a ‘better, healthier internet’ will begin on March 8, more information and registration details can be found here.

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