June 7, 2021

Decoder Newsletter: Is Disinformation Undermining American Democracy?

Margaret Sessa-Hawkins & Viviana Padelli

The big headline this week was, of course, Facebook limiting former President Donald Trump’s indefinite suspension to two years. There were many criticisms of the decision, but arguably, some of the week’s lesser publicized stories may be just as consequential for democracy — including Joe Manchin announcing he would not be supporting the ‘For the People Act,’ Nigeria defending its suspension of Twitter with a comparison to the Capitol Riots, and Pennsylvania calling for an Arizona-style voting audit. We explore these stories and their implications for both American and global democracy in this week’s Decoder. Know someone who might be interested in a weekly roundup of digital deception news? Ask them to sign up! 

  • Just in time for 2024: Facebook announced Friday that former president Donald Trump will be suspended from its platform for two years. Previously, the suspension had been indefinite, but the company clarified a time frame following criticism from the Oversight Board. The company has said that after two years, it will evaluate whether reinstating Trump poses a risk to public safety. Decode Democracy President Daniel G. Newman said the decision was “wholly insufficient to protect our democracy from the blatant lies, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and incitements to violence Trump has proven he will spread on the platform.” In Buzzfeed, Jane Lytvynenko, Caroline Haskins, Kadia Goba and Ryan Mac relate many Facebook workers’ reaction to the news (spoiler, many were not happy).
  • Facebook’s response: The announcement came as part of a larger response from Facebook to policy recommendations from the Oversight Board. NBC’s Brandy Zadrozny pointed out that the new policies could be clearer in articulating what actions will lead to suspensions, and for how long. In Lawfare Blog, Evelyn Douek described the responses as ‘milquetoast’ and ‘better than a kick in the teeth, but not much’. The main change, which The Verge reported a day before the announcement came out, was a much-touted modification of the ‘newsworthiness’ policy. Under the new rules, Facebook will now label posts where the newsworthiness exemption is applied, and politicians won’t automatically qualify for it.
  • Bye blog: Facebook’s announcement also came on the heels of the former president taking down his personal blog, which was meant to be an equivalent to a social media mouthpiece. A Washington Post analysis found the blog had staggeringly few interactions. In Wired, Philip M. Napoli writes that the move demonstrates just how important social media’s algorithmic amplification is.
  • Structurally racist disinformation: In Slate, Alice Marwich and Daniel Kreiss wrote an op-ed on how the movement to deny tenure to University of North Carolina professor Nikole Hannah-Jones is a form of disinformation campaign. The campaign uses disinformation to argue against teaching that discusses the structural racism present in society. In denying Hannah-Jones tenure, however, Marwich and Kreiss argue that UNC is proving how ingrained structural racism truly is.
  • Twitter down: Nigeria suspended Twitter days after a post from President Muhammadu Buhari threatening to punish regional secessionists was removed. In justifying the move, the information minister Lai Mohammad compared what was happening in Nigeria to the Jan. 6 Capitol Riots, stating that what in Nigeria was considered protest, in the USA was considered insurrection. As Evelyn Douek noted, the Indian government has made similar arguments. In Protocol, Ben Brody looked at whether the global confrontation between governments and social media presages a crackdown on social media companies and internet freedoms.
  • For the People Act: Joe Manchin has written an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail on why he is voting against S.1, the For the People Act. Judd Legum of Popular Info has a thread on how Manchin’s arguments track closely with Chamber of Commerce talking points. In The Hill, Democracy 21’s Matt Keller points out the Senate has been voting down many measures with widespread bipartisan public support recently.
  • The Big Lie: Pennsylvania Republicans are calling for an audit of the 2020 elections similar to the one being conducted in Arizona. In a thread, Kate Starbird of the University of Washington points out that these actions are all linked to an ongoing disinformation campaign. In the Guardian, Pippa Norris of Harvard and the Electoral Integrity Project writes that these actions pose a risk to democracy, and that to address them the Senate needs to abolish the filibuster, and pass the For the People Act.
  • Research: A new paper in ‘Social Media + Society’ finds that online ‘networked’ harassment is almost always justified by moral motivators. The author, Alice Marwick, has a useful thread summarizing the key findings. In the International Journal of Press/Politics, a new paper finds that politicians are responsible for driving polarization in online political debates, not news media. In Politico, Alexander Coppock, Donald P. Green and Ethan Porter lay out how political ads can affect partisanship. The Supreme Court has made a landmark ruling that clarifies the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, although activists are calling for more of a safe harbor for journalists and researchers studying disinformation. In MIT’s Technology review, Karen Hao writes that most AI programs are still terrible at moderating hate speech, but that scientists are getting better at understanding why the programs fail so often.

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