Fake news on social media puts democracy at risk, MPs warn
The Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee has called for social media platforms to be regulated and forced to comply with a code of ethics to tackle illegal, manipulative and harmful content.
While the UK Government remains entangled in unending Brexit discussions, the Parliamentary Committee has unexpectedly taken on a world-leading role in scrutinising the behaviour of social media platforms. Following a long investigation into social media platforms, which included scrutiny of their data-handling practices, the committee has published its final report.
In November 2018, the committee hosted legislators from France, Canada, Singapore, Ireland, Latvia, Belgium, Brazil and Argentina to form an “International Grand Committee on Disinformation”, with the intention of questioning Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on the role of the platform in spreading disinformation and undermining democratic processes. Zuckerberg was widely condemned for refusing to appear before the committee and instead sending former Liberal Democrat MP Richard Allan, Facebook VP for Policy Solutions, in his place.
In another unprecedented move, the committee seized and later released 250 pages of confidential internal Facebook documents, including emails sent between Zuckerberg and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. The documents revealed that Facebook had whitelisted certain companies to continue allowing them access to Facebook users’ friends’ data gathered via apps, despite changes made in 2014 to ostensibly put an end to the practice.
After reviewing the evidence seized and testimony from witnesses, the committee has concluded that social media platforms behave like “digital gangsters” which put democracy at risk and should no longer be allowed to self-regulate. Instead, it has demanded that they are forced to comply with a code of conduct, enforced by an independent regulator.
“Companies like Facebook should not be allowed to behave like ‘digital gangsters’ in the online world, considering themselves to be ahead of and beyond the law,” the committee wrote. The MPs singled out Facebook as a particularly stubborn offender, accusing it of being “unwilling” to be held accountable by regulators. They criticised Zuckerberg of having shown “contempt” and a failure of personal responsibility by continually refusing to appear before them, adding that they believed that Facebook had “deliberately sought to frustrate our work, by giving incomplete, disingenuous and at times misleading answers” to their questions.
The report called for new ethical guidelines to define what is unacceptable content on social media, including harmful and illegal content that has been flagged up by users or otherwise been identified by the companies. Companies failing to meet their ethical obligations should be accountable to an independent regulator with the power to launch legal proceedings and issue significant fines, the committee said.
“Social media companies cannot hide behind the claim of being merely a ‘platform’ and maintain that they have no responsibility themselves in regulating the content of their sites,” the report said.
Damian Collins, a Conservative MP and chair of the committee said: “Democracy is at risk from the malicious and relentless targeting of citizens with disinformation and personalised ‘dark adverts’ from unidentifiable sources, delivered through the major social media platforms we use every day. Much of this is directed from agencies working in foreign countries, including Russia.”
“The big tech companies are failing in the duty of care they owe to their users to act against harmful content and to respect their data privacy rights,” he said. “We need a radical shift in the balance of power between the platforms and the people. The age of inadequate self-regulation must come to an end. The rights of the citizen need to be established in statute, by requiring the tech companies to adhere to a code of conduct written into law by Parliament and overseen by an independent regulator.”
The committee – referring to the confidential documents obtained from Facebook, revealing how the company controlled other companies’ access to user data – stated that the social media giant had “intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws”. The MPs called for the Information Commissioner’s Office to investigate these practices and for the Competition and Markets Authority to investigate whether Facebook was guilty of anti-competitive practices, as well as carrying out an audit of the social media advertising market.
Elizabeth Denham, the UK’s Information Commissioner, welcomed the committee’s support for her recommendation of a statutory code to clarify how personal data could be used for political campaigning: “The ICO’s investigations into these areas continue and we’ll be reviewing the full report with interest,” she said.
The MPs also called for reform to electoral laws to protect democracy processes. These reforms must reflect a move to “microtargeted” online political campaigning, they recommended.
“Our electoral regulations are hopelessly out of date for the Internet age,” Collins said. “We need reform so that the same principles of transparency of political communications apply online, just as they do in the real world. More needs to be done to require major donors to clearly establish the source of their funds.”
In a statement, Collins said that the committee repeated its call to clarify how many investigations were being carried out into Russian interference in UK politics such that the impact of state-backed voter manipulation – including on the 2016 EU referendum – could be comprehended. The committee flagged up severe concerns about the behaviour of Leave.EU in the run-up to the referendum, and suggested that the government launch an independent investigation into past elections and referendums which focus on foreign influence, fake news, funding, voter manipulation and sharing of data, to enable appropriate changes to electoral law.
Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour Party and Shadow Culture Secretary, stated that: “Labour agrees with the committee’s ultimate conclusion: the era of self-regulation for tech companies must end immediately. We need new independent regulation with a tough powers and sanctions regime to curb the worst excesses of surveillance capitalism and the forces trying to use technology to subvert our democracy.”
“Few individuals have shown contempt for our parliamentary democracy in the way Mark Zuckerberg has,” Watson added. “If one thing is uniting politicians of all colours during this difficult time for our country, it is our determination to bring him and his company into line.”
Facebook denied that it had been unhelpful and obstructive during the inquiry: “We share the committee’s concerns about false news and election integrity and are pleased to have made a significant contribution to their investigation over the past 18 months, answering more than 700 questions and with four of our most senior executives giving evidence,” said Karim Palant, Facebook’s UK public policy manager.
“We are open to meaningful regulation and support the committee’s recommendation for electoral law reform. But we’re not waiting. We have already made substantial changes so that every political ad on Facebook has to be authorised, state who is paying for it and then is stored in a searchable archive for seven years. No other channel for political advertising is as transparent and offers the tools that we do.
“We also support effective privacy legislation that holds companies to high standards in their use of data and transparency for users.”
A government spokesperson said: “This week, the Culture Secretary will travel to the United States to meet with tech giants including Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple to discuss many of these issues. We welcome this report’s contribution towards our work to tackle the increasing threat of disinformation and to make the UK the safest place to be online. We will respond in due course.”
Facebook has come under greater scrutiny in the past year, most significantly following the revelation that the data analytics company Cambridge Analytica had harvested data from 87 million users in order to develop political adverts – including some for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign – based on individuals’ psychological profiles. Other scandals, concerning data leaks, the proliferation of harmful disinformation, abusive content and the suspected aggravation of mental health conditions have led to calls for greater regulation of these platforms.
Recently, the Commons Science and Technology Committee has called on the government to regulate social media companies in order to protect the health and wellbeing of its younger users, including with the establishment of an independent regulator. The Digital Minister, Margot James, has welcomed the committee’s recommendations and confirmed that the government will introduce a “new regulatory regime” for social media companies to ensure that they fulfil their duty of care to all users.
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