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Politics

A Macedonian misinformation site dominated Parler before the Capitol riot

According to new data, some 87% of all news links on Parler leading up to Jan. 6 were from misinformation sites.

A Macedonian misinformation site dominated Parler before the Capitol riot

Before the Capitol riot, some 87% of news links on Parler led to known misinformation sites.

Photo: Parler

In the week leading up to the riot inside the U.S. Capitol, a whopping 87% of all news links on Parler led to known misinformation sites, according to a new report from the news rating firm NewsGuard and analytics firm PeakMetrics.

The report quantifies just how polluted the information landscape was on Parler in January, before it was unceremoniously deplatformed by Amazon. This week, the app relaunched following a month-long hiatus, with few guardrails in place to prevent history from repeating itself.

According to the report, among the many misinformation sites that filled Parler before the Jan. 6 uprising, the site that appeared most frequently was American Conservatives Today, which launched just a month before the riot and appeared to be run out of Macedonia. It was linked to nearly 3,000 times in a single week.

Other sites that proliferated on Parler that week include a network of Islamophobic sites reportedly run out of Israel, a video site linked to InfoWars' Alex Jones and a QAnon conspiracy theory site. In addition to these peddlers of fake news, NewsGuard also found more than 1,000 links to weapon sales, prepper gear, nutritional supplements and other merchandise.

"Many misinformation publishers, including those involved in spreading falsehoods about the 2020 presidential election, depend on click-throughs from social media platforms to drive page views and advertising revenue," NewsGuard's general manager, Matt Skibinski, wrote in the report, which was provided exclusively to Protocol. "As mainstream platforms like Twitter and Facebook face regulatory pressure to reduce the spread of misinformation, misinformation sources may continue to shift to less controlled platforms like Parler."

NewsGuard analyzes thousands of news sites across the web and grades them based on a rubric of journalistic rigor. Sites that pass get a green label, while sites that fail get a red one. NewsGuard publishes detailed explanations of its grading system with each label. To measure just how many of these red-rated sites were floating around Parler, NewsGuard partnered with PeakMetrics to pull every post on Parler that contained a link to news during the first week of January, then ran those links against NewsGuard's list of misinformation sites. The results show that in addition to the rampant calls for violence that pervaded the app, Parler was absolutely overrun with misinformation, much of it driven by profit.

NewsGuard wasn't the first to note Parler's Macedonian fake news problem. Last fall, before the U.S. election, researchers at the Election Integrity Project found that around one in seven Parler users followed an account linked to a Macedonian clickbait site called Resist the Mainstream. Larger platforms like Facebook saw the same phenomenon emerge before the 2016 election and have since worked to crack down on these for-profit fake news purveyors. But the effort has yielded mixed results. According to reporting by the Wall Street Journal, Facebook's own internal researchers found in August that one of its most popular political groups last year had "possible Macedonian ties." Facebook has now stopped recommending all political groups to its users.

Parler, by contrast, has resurfaced with much the same mission that got it deplatformed in the first place: to provide a safe space for dangerous speech. It has a new web hosting provider, Epik, which has hosted another famously deplatformed app beloved by the far-right, Gab. It's got a new CEO in conservative activist Mark Meckler, who replaced the company's co-founder and CEO John Matze (who said he was fired by Parler's financier Rebekah Mercer). And it's got some new line items in its terms of service, including algorithmic content moderation that monitors for incitements to violence and a "trolling filter" that will allow people to, at least in theory, stop seeing certain types of targeted abuse.

But for the most part, Parler's new handlers appear undeterred in their commitment to creating an anything-goes app — even if that app is filled almost entirely with fake news.

People

No editing, no hashtags: Dispo wants you to live in the moment

David Dobrik's new photography app harkens back to the days of the disposable camera.

Dispo turns the concept of a photography app into something altogether different.

Image: Katya Sapozhnina, Diana Morgan, Amanda Luke

Instagram was once a place to share Starbucks cups and high-contrast pet photos. After Facebook acquired it in 2012, it has turned into a competition of getting as many likes as possible (using the same formula over and over: post the best highly-curated, edited photos with the funniest captions). More recently, it's essentially become a shopping mall, with brands falling over themselves to be heard through the noise. Doing something "for the gram" — scaling buildings, posting the same cringe picture over and over — became the norm. Pop-up museums litter cities with photo ops for posts; "camera eats first"; everything can be a cute Instagram story; everything is content.

And to be clear, Dispo — a buzzy new photography app that just came out of beta — is still a place for content. It probably isn't going to fix our collective online brains and their inclination to share everything about our private lives with others online. It's still an app, and it's still social media, and it encourages documenting your life. But it runs pretty differently than any other image-sharing app out there. And that might be what helps it stand out in an oversaturated market of social networking apps.

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Jane Seidel

Jane Seidel is Protocol's social media manager. She was previously a platform producer at The Wall Street Journal, creating mobile content and crafting alert strategy. Prior to that, she worked in audience development at WSJ and on digital editorial at NBC Universal. She lives in Brooklyn.

Sponsored Content

Building better relationships in the age of all-remote work

How Stripe, Xero and ModSquad work with external partners and customers in Slack channels to build stronger, lasting relationships.

Image: Original by Damian Zaleski

Every business leader knows you can learn the most about your customers and partners by meeting them face-to-face. But in the wake of Covid-19, the kinds of conversations that were taking place over coffee, meals and in company halls are now relegated to video conferences—which can be less effective for nurturing relationships—and email.

Email inboxes, with hard-to-search threads and siloed messages, not only slow down communication but are also an easy target for scammers. Earlier this year, Google reported more than 18 million daily malware and phishing emails related to Covid-19 scams in just one week and more than 240 million daily spam messages.

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Politics

A Bloomberg-backed ‘tech co’ is building campaign tools for the left and right

The stealthy firm, which has been buying political tech firms for more than a year, is backed by Emma Bloomberg's philanthropic group.

The new firm, called Tech co., is backed by Michael Bloomberg's daughter, Emma Bloomberg.

Image: Clayton Cardinalli

A new company backed by Michael Bloomberg's daughter Emma Bloomberg has been quietly buying political tech firms and going on a hiring spree, as it seeks to create a digital organizing platform that operates "outside of a traditional 'Red/Blue' partisan paradigm."

Neither the existence of the firm, called simply Tech co. for now, nor its high-profile funder have been previously reported, though it's been up and running for at least a year. But a spate of recent job listings seeking data scientists, behavioral scientists and engineers have circulated through the insular political tech whisper mill, sparking curiosity as the startup prepares to emerge from stealth mode this spring.

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Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing. Email Issie.
Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Policy

New California law would give wronged workers a way out of NDAs

Ex-Pinterest employee Ifeoma Ozoma helped draft the bill that would allow workers to speak out about all forms of covered workplace discrimination, not just sexual harassment.

California State Senator Connie Leyva introduced the Silenced No More Act on Monday.

Photo: Gina Ferazzi/Getty Images

Ifeoma Ozoma took a huge risk last year when she publicly alleged that she faced racist and sexist discrimination during her time at Pinterest. She knew Pinterest could sue her and her colleague Aerica Shimizu Banks for speaking out about their experiences as Black women at the company. But she also knew that a new law called CCP 1001 protected her right to speak out about sexism she faced at Pinterest, even if she was bound by a non-disclosure agreement.

But Ozoma soon realized that the law, passed in the wake of the #MeToo movement, has serious limitations. While it specifies that California workers can speak out about any sex-based discrimination, it says nothing about other forms of abuse, like racism.

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Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

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