Fake news is a threat to democracy, UK MPs warn

A leaked investigatory report from a British parliamentary committee warns of the "democratic crisis" posed by fake news, disinformation, and election interference

(Photo: legalzoom)
(Photo: legalzoom)

According to a British parliamentary committee, the UK faces a “democratic crisis” due to the propagation of “pernicious views” and the manipulation of personal data.

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee has been investigating fake news and disinformation in the wake of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

In its first report, the committee is to propose stricter regulation for social media organisations, as well as measures to combat election interference. The document, in particular, warns that “the relentless targeting of hyper-partisan views, which play to the fears and prejudices of people, in order to influence their voting plans” threatens democracy.

The report, which was due to be officially published on Sunday, was leaked on Friday by Dominic Cummings, the director of the official Brexit campaign group ‘Vote Leave’, who published it on his own blog.

According to the committee, Mr Cummings was requested to participate in the inquiry in response to allegations made against the Vote Leave campaign, but he refused. Mr Cummings has labelled the report as “fake news”.

What are the Committee’s suggestions?

1. Social Media sites should be held responsible for ‘harmful’ content available through their services

Companies such as Facebook and YouTube have repeatedly maintained that they are just a “platform”, rather than a “publisher”, and thus should not accountable for the content people post using their services.

The committee, however, has argued that “[s]ocial media companies cannot hide behind the claim of being merely a ‘platform’, claiming that they are tech companies and have no role themselves in regulating the content of their sites”. It pointed out that “[t]hey continually change what is and is not seen on their sites, based on algorithms and human intervention” and that “[t]hey reward what is most engaging, because engagement is part of their business model and their growth strategy. They have profited greatly by using this model."

The committee proposed that a “new category of tech company” be created, which was "not necessarily a platform or a publisher" but something in between.

This should establish "clear legal liability for the tech companies to act against harmful and illegal content on their platforms," the report said.

2. The rules on political campaigns should be adapted for the digital age

The committee said electoral law must be "updated to reflect changes in campaigning techniques".

It suggested the creation of a public register for political advertising, so that anyone can see what messages are being distributed. In addition, the report recommended that online political advertisements should have a digital imprint stating who was responsible, as is required with printed leaflets and advertisements.

The report also highlighted that social media sites should be held responsible for interference in elections by malicious actors and, in terms of such culpability, that electoral fraud fines should be increased from a maximum of £20,000 to a percentage of organisations' annual turnover.

3. Technology companies should be taxed to fund education and regulation

Increased regulation of social media sites would create more work for organisations such as the Electoral Commission and Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).  

Thus, the committee proposed a levy on tech companies in order to fund the extended responsibilities of regulators, as well as to create educational programmes and a public information campaign in order to assist people in identifying disinformation and fake news.

4. Social media networks should be audited

The report warns that fake accounts on sites like Twitter and Facebook "not only damage the user experience, but potentially defraud advertisers".

It advised that social networks should be audited by an independent authority such as the Competition and Markets Authority.

In addition, it stated that security mechanisms and algorithms used by social networks should be available for audit by a government regulator, to ensure they are "operating responsibly".

Facebook criticised

It is little surprise that Facebook has been a target of heavy criticism following the investigation, in light of the numerous social debacles the company has faced over years including, most recently, the Cambridge-Analytica scandal.

The report goes so far as to state that "Facebook has hampered our efforts to get information about their company throughout this inquiry. It is as if it thinks that the problem will go away if it does not share information about the problem, and reacts only when it is pressed".

"It provided witnesses who have been unwilling or unable to give full answers to the committee's questions."

The committee repeated its call for Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to give evidence.

The report also summarises the evidence collected during the committee’s inquiry into fake news, disinformation, and election interference.

Whistleblower Christopher Wylie and Cambridge Analytica chief executive Alexander Nix were among the 61 witnesses to provide evidence.

The committee also said it had received "disturbing evidence" – not all of which has yet been published - of hacking, disinformation, and voter suppression in elections, and the committee "urge[s] the government to ensure that the National Crime Agency thoroughly investigates these allegations."

The committee's final report is expected before the end of the year.

Facebook and Twitter have yet to make any response.

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