Jurisdictional shopping for data

Brexit begins to deliver on race-to-the-bottom deregulation: according to reports from UK-based NGO Open Rights Group, the recent free-trade deal with Japan will allow GDPR-level protections on Britons’ data to be circumvented. Specifically, US-based companies will be able to route UK users’ data through Japan, thereby defeating regulatory protections UK law inherited from the EU. It is interesting to see strategies and loopholes traditionally used for internationally produced goods now being applied to user data.

Disinformation at the weakest link

There was an interesting article recently in Quartz about 2020 electoral disinformation in Spanish-language social media. While the major platforms have taken credit for the fact that the election did not feature a repeat of the coordinated foreign influence operations of 2016, arguably the victory lap came somewhat too soon, as the problem cases in the information sphere this cycle are only gradually coming to light. Post-electoral myth-building about a rigged process and a stolen victory, for one, while of little practical import for the present, has the potential to plant a deep, lasting sense of grievance in conservative political culture in the US over the long term. Similarly, the fact that less public attention, less civil-society scrutiny, less community-based new-media literacy, and less algorithmic refinement were available for Spanish-speaking electoral discourse meant that disinformation was allowed to expand much more broadly and deeply than in English. The mainstream liberal narrative that such a fact per se helps explain the disappointing electoral results of the Democratic Party with this demographic (especially in States like Florida or Texas) is itself fairly insensitive and stereotyped. The Latinx electorate in the US is not a monolith, and segments within it have distinct political preferences, which are no more the product of disinformation than anyone else’s. Yet, it seems clear that in this electoral campaign factually false political statements received less pushback, both from above and from below, when they were uttered in Spanish.

Two general facts are illustrated by this example. On the one hand, because of the production and distribution dynamics of disinformation, it is clear that its spread follows a path of least resistance: minority languages, like peripheral countries or minor social media platforms, while unlikely to be on the cutting edge of new disinformation, tend to be more permeable to stock disinformation that has been rebutted elsewhere. On the other hand, where disinformation has the ability to do the most damage is in spaces where it is unexpected, in fields that are considered separate and independent, subject to different rules of engagement. In this sense, fake news does not simply provide partisans with ‘factual’ reasons to feel how they already felt about their adversaries: it can legitimately catch the unsuspecting unawares. One of the reasons for disinformation’s massive impact on American public discourse is that in a hyper-partisan era all manner of domains in everyday life once completely divorced from politics have been reached by political propaganda, and in these contexts a weary habituation with such wrangling has not yet set in, effectively tuning them out. This dynamic has been reflected in social media platforms: the ‘repurposing’ of LinkedIn and NextDoor in connection with the BLM protests is telling.

So, if disinformation at its most effective is the insertion of narratives where they are least expected, and if its spread follows a path of least resistance, seeking out the weakest link (while its containment follows an actuarial logic, the most effort being placed where the highest return is expected), what does this portend for the possibility of a unitary public sphere?

There is reason to believe that these are long-run concerns, and that the Presidential campaign may have been the easy part. As Ellen Goodman and Karen Kornbluh mention in their platform electoral performance round-up,

That there was clearly authoritative local information about voting and elections made the platforms’ task easier. It becomes harder in other areas of civic integrity where authority is more contested.

Foreign counterexamples such as that of Taiwan reinforce the conundrum: cohesive societies are capable of doing well against disinformation, but in already polarized ones a focus on such a fight is perceived as being a partisan stance itself.

Victory lap for the EIP

Today, I followed the webcast featuring the initial wrap-up of the Electoral Integrity Partnership (I have discussed their work before). All the principal institutions composing the partnership (Stanford, University of Washington, Graphika, and the Atlantic Council) were represented on the panel. It was, in many respects, a victory lap, given the consensus view that foreign disinformation played a marginal role in the election, compared to 2016, also due to proactive engagement on the part of the large internet companies facilitated by projects such as the EIP.

In describing the 2020 disinformation ecosystem, Alex Stamos (Stanford Internet Observatory) characterized it as mostly home-grown, non-covert, and reliant on major influencers, which in turn forced platforms to transform their content moderation activities into a sort of editorial policy (I have remarked on this trend before). Also, for all the focus on social media, TV was seen to play a very important role, especially for the purpose of building background narratives in the long run, day to day.

Camille François (Graphika) remarked on the importance of alternative platforms, and indeed the trend has been for an expansion of political discourse to all manner of fora previously insulated from it (on this, more soon).

Of the disinformation memes that made it into the mainstream conversation (Stamos mentioned the example of Sharpie-gate), certain characteristics stand out: they tended to appeal to rival technical authority, so as to project an expert-vs-expert dissonance; they were made sticky by official endorsement, which turned debunking into a partisan enterprise. However, their very predictability rendered the task of limiting their spread easier for the platforms. Kate Starbird (UW) summed it up: if the story in 2016 was coordinated inauthentic foreign action, in 2020 it was authentic, loosely-coordinated domestic action, and the major institutional players (at least on the tech infrastructure side) were ready to handle it.

It makes sense for the EIP to celebrate how the disinformation environment was stymied in 2020 (as Graham Brookie of the Atlantic Council put it, it was a win for defence in the ongoing arms race on foreign interference), but it is not hard to see how such an assessment masks a bigger crisis, which would have been evident had there been a different victor. Overall trust in the informational ecosystem has been dealt a further, massive blow by the election, and hyper-polarized post-truth politics are nowhere near over. Indeed, attempts currently underway to fashion a Dolchstoßlegende are liable to have very significant systemic effects going forward. The very narrow focus on disinformation the EIP pursued may have paid off for now, but it is the larger picture of entrenched public distrust that guarantees that these problems will persist into the future.

What misinformation is better than

A good piece in Slate underlining the mismatch between the (bipartisan) attention that misinformation has garnered in the US electoral campaign and the evidence that voting decisions depend overwhelmingly on social identity. Fake news does not land on a blank slate, mysteriously swaying otherwise innocent targets; a much more likely scenario is that it permits the articulation of already entrenched partisan views, and in this sense its truth value is not the key consideration. In a way, though, agreeing that misinformation is decisive is a last-gasp attempt on the part of the American public to hold on to a fact-checking, objective view of politics; accepting a notion of politics as extreme value pluralism is much more disturbing, at least for non-practitioners.