Digital politics, propaganda, & polarization

Digital foreign agents

Shannon McGregor, Bridget Barrett, and Daniel Kreiss released a new publication today: “Questionably legal: Digital politics and foreign propaganda” reviews Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) data to understand the how U.S. political firms work legally to promote the interests of foreign countries.

They find that U.S political firms use social media, ads, websites, and native advertising on behalf of foreign governments and target journalists specifically. These media do not always include legally required FARA disclaimers. Their recommendations include encouraging political communication researchers dig more deeply into FARA data, calling for updated reporting procedures designed for digital communication, and advocating for digital political advertising repositories to include these ads in their archives, even if they don’t meet other definitions of “political.”

They write:

Our most powerful findings regard what is absent. This study revealed more about the inconsistencies and inadequacies of the current FARA disclosure process – as well as important gaps in tech firms’ ad archives – than it did about the content of the messages themselves.

Read the full article


Earlier this week, Facebook’s Nick Clegg published a defense of the company’s recommendation algorithms, pushing back on the narrative that the platform is driving political polarization. In the conversation that followed, Daniel Kreiss offered a thread on polarization research and its limits as a framework for assessing the health of our democracy.

To my eyes, too much of the polarization literature desires political stability while ignoring that the terms of stability in the US means white supremacy - look no further than massive disparities in health, wealth, voting access, and policing along racial lines. So, I and others would argue that our foremost concern should not be political stability, but justice and equality. And indeed, political inequality has been far more democratically destabilizing than polarization in the US.

He concluded:

Recent publications and appearances

“…bigger tech companies are usually much better at hiding what they actually do with user data, while restricting users from having control and oversight over their own data. Once you give, there’s no taking back.” Graduate research affiliate Heesoo Jang looks at the fallout from South Korean A.I. company ScatterLab’s releasing intimate conversations, including personal details, in a training dataset collected from its popular app.

“Most of the expressive affordances that the internet holds can be turned toward political ends.” Deen Freelon spoke with The Measure of Everyday Life podcast about the evolution of online activism.

“Reparations can do what education cannot do.” Tressie McMillan Cottom’s 2014 op-ed on the failings of education as a panacea for racial equality was quoted in an NBC article about a new plan for reparations in Evanston, Illinois.

“Exponential growth—the hallmark of epidemics, but which the B.1.1.7 variant accelerates—is dangerous but also sensitive to small initial changes, giving an advantage to those who act quickly.” Zeynep Tufekci’s latest column for the Atlantic explores how circumstances have changed as the U.S. enters its fourth surge in the pandemic.

"If […] Twitter exacerbates a journalistic tendency to pass along statements unverified, there are clear drawbacks for the information ecology.” Shannon McGregor and Logan Molyneux’s recent NiemanLab piece on the impact of Twitter on journalism was included in a “Need to Know” roundup from the American Press Institute.

Coming soon

Coded Bias will be available on Netflix beginning April 5! And if you’ve already seen it, the African American Policy Forum released the video of an accompanying talkback featuring Joy Buolamwini, Timnit Gebru, Tranae’ Moran, Cathy O’Neil, and Ruha Benjamin.

Informal, Criminalized, Precarious: Sex Workers Organizing Against Barriers” – CITAP is presenting a webinar series with Hacking//Hustling, the Cornell Gender Justice Clinic, and Berkman Klein Center. Sessions are scheduled throughout April, beginning tomorrow.

Tressie McMillan Cottom will be giving this year’s Ed Mignon Distinguished Lecture at the University of Washington Information School on April 13, and the keynote address for the Association of College & Research Libraries 2021 Conference, taking place April 13-16.

Rachel Kuo is co-facilitating an Ethical and Effective Public Scholarship workshop on April 30, as part of Boston College’s conference on Building the Fugitive Academy: Communication, Culture, Media, & Rhetoric Scholars on the Work of Transformation.

Rest of Web

UNC’s Ida B. Wells Society is sponsoring several investigative reporting internships this summer for HBCU students and students from other under-represented groups. The first is a paid internship on the investigations desk at the New York Times.

We celebrate the launch of the Center for Applied Transgender Studies, and welcome UNC Press’s free release of “Hammer and Hoe,” Robin D. G. Kelley’s history of communist organizing in Alabama during the Great Depression.