UK politicians reach withering verdict on Facebook’s effect on democracy

30 Jul 2018

Facebook app on a mobile device. Image: Twin Design/Shutterstock

A new report from UK lawmakers says Facebook simply didn’t do enough to help in the fight against online misinformation.

The digital, cultural, media and sport (DCMS) committee in the UK has released a report providing details of its investigation into disinformation and ‘fake news’ in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The report was touted to be published on 29 July, but a copy was leaked by the director of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings, on 27 July. Cummings had been asked to help the DCMS with its inquiry, but refused.

The DCMS group worked together with the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington, which announced last week that its own hearing around foreign interference on social media would be taking place soon.

Facebook was ‘disingenuous’

The DCMS committee did not mince its words when it came to Facebook, accusing the company of providing “disingenuous” responses to some of its questions while avoiding answering others “to the point of obstruction”. The group cited Facebook’s response to its investigation as a major reason to advocate for new regulations around accountability for social media platforms.

It said: “Facebook should not be in a position of marking its own homework” and added that the company’s reticence “does not bode well for future transparency”.

The report comes at a tense time for Facebook as its latest earnings report spooked investors with admittance of slowing user growth.

The DCMS noted the “relentless targeting of hyper-partisan views, which play to the fears and prejudices of people in order to influence their voting plans”.

It added: “There has been a continual reluctance on the part of Facebook to conduct its own research on whether its organisation has been used by Russia to influence others.”

Tech companies not merely a ‘platform’

The report also noted “a disconnect between the government’s expressed concerns about foreign interference in elections, and tech companies’ intractability in recognising the issue”.

The British government is expected to lay out a proposition for a new regulatory framework for internet companies later in 2018, including a requirement for all electoral advertising to be clearly linked to their publishers.

Increased regulation and tougher political rules could spell the end for the concept of social media platforms as passive vessels for content shared by users, as well as the shields in terms of privacy and copyright provided to these companies in years past. The report added: “Social media companies cannot hide behind the claim of being merely a ‘platform’.

“That is not the case; they continually change what is and is not seen on their sites, based on algorithms and human intervention.”

MP Damian Collins told the BBC that the general public now struggles to identify ‘fake news’. He added: “If these tools that are so powerful, that can reach millions and millions of people all around the world at the touch of a button, if they can be effectively used to spread disinformation without the source of that information ever being revealed, as appears to be the case here, then that is a threat we have to confront.”

The final report from the DCMS special committee group is due before 2018 draws to a close.

Facebook app on a mobile device. Image: Twin Design/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects