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Flagged: Will Facebook's labels help counter state-sponsored propaganda?

Here is a preview of Flagged, a newsletter from the Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program. Each week, we flag the most important news about disinformation and how to counter it. Sign up to learn more.

Welcome to a preview of Flagged, a newsletter from the Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program. Each week, we flag the most important news about disinformation and how to counter it, landing an accessible analytical brief in your inbox every Wednesday. 
Information flows are incessant; news fatigue is real. In addressing these issues, nothing matters more than the laws and policies that govern our information space. Amid the COVID-19 “infodemic,” the choices our legislatures and social media platforms make could have repercussions for years to come. And we’ll be tracking and making sense of them for you. Stay in the know; if you'd like to start receiving Flagged, please opt-in here.

This Week in Disinformation: fighting back against state-sponsored propaganda networks and protest-related disinformation; cracking down on domestic disinformation in Brazil.

  • Facebook will begin labeling state-sponsored media outlets this summer to inform users if the news sources they are reading are under government editorial control. Additionally, Facebook will not permit state-sponsored media outlets to run ads on its platforms in the US. Facebook is applying more stringent countermeasures to the US information environment “out of an abundance of caution” to counter foreign interference in the 2020 presidential election. Globally, labels will appear on state-funded media outlets’ “Ad Library Page view, on Pages, and in the Page Transparency section.” But in the US, labels will also appear in users’ NewsFeeds on posts from these organizations beginning this week. Thus far, Facebook has targeted Russian, Chinese, and Iranian state-sponsored media with labels--specifically Russia Today and affiliates, Sputnik, China's People's Daily, and Iran's Press TV. This policy move aims to increase transparency and reduce misinformation on Facebook’s platform, but it is not a new approach: YouTube began labeling state-funded media in 2018. However, that policy was applied inconsistently and left some government-owned news channels unmarked. It also did not differentiate between state-funded outlets with editorial independence, such as the BBC and Voice of America, from outlets under full government control. Neither policy informs users about domestic sources of disinformation. 

  • Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court launched an investigation into an alleged fake news network tied to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his sons. Bolsonaro built his 2018 campaign and his current presidency on social media, posting frequently on Facebook and Twitter congratulating his allies, disparaging the press, and deflecting criticism. But the election campaign and his subsequent online engagement has shown he uses his digital prowess to discredit his enemies by propagating conspiracy theories and misinformation systematically via a network of online allies. Public figures critical of Bolsonaro are very often made the targets of forceful, coordinated digital smear campaigns. The Supreme Federal Court’s probe is evaluating whether Bolsonaro’s inner circle are responsible for waging these coordinated attacks, inserting disinformation and conspiracy theories into the national discourse. This week, investigators pursued 29 search warrants and raided the homes of devout Bolsonaro allies in search of evidence of financing for a fake news network. These raids come on the heels of a delayed parliament vote on Brazil’s controversial fake news law this Tuesday. Instead, the vote was rescheduled for the following week due to shared concerns about the sweeping implications of the law.

  • Disinformation about the police killing of George Floyd intensified this week. Conspiracy theories spread alleging that George Floyd’s death was staged and that he is still alive; that police departments or antifasict activists were planting bricks nearby the protests to bait protesters into inciting violence; and that billionaire George Soros is funding the protests, among other narratives. Rumors have also spread rapidly: a rumor that DC authorities imposed a communications blackout trended on Twitter via a #DCblackout hashtag, which was tweeted by a user with only three followers but initiated one million mentions within one day. Some experts say it may have been a sophisticated state-sponsored disinformation campaign. 

  • Platforms have taken measures to contain this domestic digital information chaos. Facebook banned the word “bugaloo, a term referring to a second civil war or the end of human civilization. It also halted “bugaloo”-related Groups recommendations after the movement’s adherents attempted to coordinate a plots for taking up arms and inciting violence at a George Floyd protest in Las Vegas. Twitter, for its part, banned a fake ANTIFA account run by white nationalist group: Identity Evropa.

Recent Wilson Center Work

  • Disinformation Fellow Nina Jankowicz is quoted in this citizen’s guide to countering disinformation from the Washington Post along with experts Shireen Mitchell (Stop Online Violence Against Women), Kate Starbird (University of Washington), Claire Wardle (First Draft News), Graham Brookie (DFRLab), and Michael Caulfield (WSU Vancouver). One tip from the guide: since online impersonation is so common these days, do not amplify content from anyone you aren’t sure is a real human. “There’s no reason to be amplifying content from pure strangers,” says Jankowicz.

  • The Kennan Institute’s Cindy Garcia wrote about the complex coronavirus disinformation problem, where both foreign and domestic bad actors are currently active. “A growing body of evidence suggests that the United States shares plenty of blame for the creation and spread of disinformation about the virus,” Garcia writes, and ignoring this trend keeps the US locked in a “vicious cycle of blame, deflection, and denial with Russia that only plays into the Kremlin’s hands and ignores the complexities of the disinformation problem.” 

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