What does a brand new administration imply for Large Tech? – MapLight
The USA flag in binary code.
Photo by Matt Anderson Photography.
The Decoder, produced by MapLight, is a newsletter that allows you to keep up to date with the top news, research, and analysis on misleading digital politics. Every week we send you reports on the networks of companies trying to manipulate public opinion, their political spending commitments and the actors who are committed to protecting our democracy. Do you know anyone who might be interested? Ask them to sign up!
- A new day: Well, here we are. On Wednesday, January 20, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States of America. Despite fears, the transfer of power went smoothly and peacefully, if a little unconventionally, thanks to the ongoing pandemic and very real threats of violence. However, the shadow of disinformation – and its role in the January 6 riots in the capital – was still there, and Biden addressed it directly in his inaugural address.
- Open letters: While there is still some uncertainty about what the Biden administration will mean for big tech, many members of Congress don’t wait around. On Thursday, nearly 40 Democratic MOCs led by Reps Tom Malinowski and Anna Eshoo sent open letters to Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube CEOs urging them to step up harmful, radicalizing content that led to offline violence and urged them to make substantial changes to their recommendation systems in response. Malinowski and Eshoo also plan to update and reintroduce a bill amending Section 230 to hold businesses accountable for distributing harmful content.
- Reply: Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, has a good look at how algorithms differentiate social media from traditional media by putting content in front of users rather than allowing them to choose. Far-right researcher Becca Lewis argues that the YouTube algorithm is only part of a larger and more complex problem with the platform. Daphne Keller of the CIS at Stanford has published an article addressing possible constitutional hurdles in amending Section 230.
- Majority support: Speaking of reform, a new survey by Data for Progress found that 67 percent of Americans support the For the People Act, which calls for campaign funding reform and the fight against disinformation. This support was non-partisan, although the law was most strongly advocated by Democrats, then Independents, then Republicans.
- Supervision of Trump Ban: The Trump administration may be gone, but discussions of its social media bans continue. On Thursday, Facebook announced that it would forward its decision to suspend the former president indefinitely to its governing body. The company said, “Given its importance, we feel it is important that the Board of Directors review this and give an independent judgment on whether it should be affirmed.” Facebook noted that the decision could also provide some insight into the suspension of political leaders in general. In closing, the company said it would prefer decisions like this to be made “in accordance with the framework agreed by democratically accountable legislators”.
- Analysis: In Lawfare, it is imperative to read Harvard’s Evelyn Douek about what the process will mean, why it matters, and what it could mean for Facebook’s future oversight board. In Platformer, Casey Newton discusses what different decisions could mean for the board’s legitimacy and power. In the minutes, Issie Lapowsky wonders if the average American will care or even hear about the board’s decision. In the meantime, the Real Facebook Oversight Board posted a statement about the transfer and, as you’d expect, it’s not impressed.
- Speaking of Facebook: A new report in The Markup notes that while Facebook said it stopped recommending factions for users to join … but not. The markup also found that many tech firms had advertisements for right-wing militant content despite a ban. The stories were made possible thanks to surveillance tools, and the organization’s editor-in-chief wrote an article discussing the importance of these surveillance tools and the threats to them.
- Podcasts: ProPublica reports that many social media platforms have banned Steve Bannon, but he still managed to disseminate information another way – in Apple’s podcast app.
- Quat now: Wednesday was a bad day for QAnon. Biden was installed as president without incident, and later, Ron Watkins, a former 8kun administrator who was heavily affiliated with QAnon, appeared to end the whole thing. So what happens to the conspiracy? For NBC, Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny looked at both the disappointment and hope followers experienced after inauguration. In The Guardian, Julia Carrie Wong reports that white nationalists may be trying to recruit those who feel disaffected.
- Where’s Parler ?: A federal judge ruled against the restoration of Parler on Amazon Web Services. The judge upheld Amazon’s right to refuse social media site service after Parler repeatedly violated the rules by refusing to remove incitement to violence from its site. Parler then sued the company for antitrust violations. It’s worth noting that Amazon cited Section 230 in defending its decision to boot Parler and that the law allows them to choose what can and cannot be done on their website. In the New York Times, Candace Rondeaux and Heather Hurlburt argue that the initial migration to Parler shows that self-regulation by tech companies is not working and government regulation is required.
- Plague Updates: Lest we forget, with all the political excitement, we are still in the middle of a pandemic. On Sunday, on Face the Nation, former White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx that someone in the White House had created a “parallel set of data and graphs” that would be shown to President Trump. (Maggie Haberman points out that it is interesting that this information is only just coming to light …) Internationally, Gary Shih reports for the Washington Post about a recent Chinese move to spread misinformation about American vaccines. In India, low vaccine intake may be linked to misinformation on WhatsApp. In the UK and the US, minority communities are particularly hard hit by misinformation about vaccines. The Center to Combat Digital Hate has a thread on common anti-Vaxx narratives and tactics and how to fight them.
- Research: Researchers at Cornell Tech’s Social Technologies Lab and The Technion have published an analysis of a massive Twitter data set containing information on election fraud. Interestingly, the newspaper found that promoters are mostly linked to low-quality news websites, streaming sources, and YouTube videos. This does not fully coincide with the much-cited 2020 study by Harvard researchers which found that elite-driven claims of electoral fraud (Dr. Emma Briant offers an interesting perspective on this). The paper also found that key user groups were making election fraud claims (a claim endorsed by Dr. Kate Starbird) and that Twitter’s recent suspensions have focused on QAnon claims rather than election fraud.