Fake news threatens the future of UK democracy: report

Parliamentary committee calls on government to tighten laws on tech companies and clean up 'wild west' social media.

    The report called on government to begin auditing the algorithms employed by tech companies [Dado Ruvic/Reuters]
    The report called on government to begin auditing the algorithms employed by tech companies [Dado Ruvic/Reuters]

    Report's key recommendations

    • Update electoral law to properly reflect role played by technology
    • Audit tech companies security measures and algorithms
    • Establish a code for political advertising on social media
    • New tax on social media companies to fund digital literacy programmes
    • Create a digital "Atlantic Charter" to help safeguard personal information
     


    Disinformation and the spread of fake news online threaten the future of democracy in the UK, a parliamentary committee has warned.

    In order to clean up the "wild west" world of social media, the government should tighten regulation concerning technology companies' liability for the sharing of false content on their platforms, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee recommended in a report published on Sunday.

    The report comes before a roll out of legislation aimed at overhauling online safety and internet use, which is expected to be initiated by the government later this year.

    "In this rapidly changing digital world, our existing legal framework is no longer fit for purpose," the report said.

    "Our democracy is at risk, and now is the time to act, to protect our shared values and the integrity of our democratic institutions."

    'Not passive platforms'

    The report, released after months of investigation into fake news by the committee, also called on the government to begin auditing the security measures and algorithms employed by technology companies.

    Algorithms enable platforms to prioritise content flows, meaning information may be given prominence based on its perceived relevance to the user instead of the time of publication.

    "Tech companies are not passive platforms on which users input content; they reward what is most engaging ... They have profited greatly by using this model," the report said.

    "This manipulation of the sites ... must be made more transparent," it added.

    The committee has repeatedly asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to appear at a hearing in order to answer outstanding questions concerning the platform [File: Nam Y Huh/AP]

    Tech giant Facebook came under heavy scrutiny in the report, which accused the company of "obfuscating" when asked to answer questions regarding possible interference by foreign governments - including Russia - in UK political campaigns via the platform.

    In particular, the committee was interested in determining whether Moscow had funded the placement of political adverts on Facebook during the 2016 EU referendum, which saw the UK vote to leave the 28-member bloc.

    {articleGUID}

    Last year, UK Prime Minister Theresa May accused Russia of "planting fake stories" to "sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions", allegations that Moscow has repeatedly denied.

    According to evidence initially supplied to the committee by Facebook, the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) bought only three adverts worth $0.97 in the days prior to the Brexit vote. 

    Subsequent internal investigations by the company, prompted by the committee's scrutiny, found no additional activity tied to Russia.

    The committee's report, however, said Facebook's investigations failed to include any examination of unpaid posts and, instead, solely focused on the IRA "troll farms".

    Facebook said in a statement following the report's publication the committee's findings had raised "some important issues" and pledged to work with UK officials to develop new transparency tools.

    "We share their goal of ensuring that political advertising is fair and transparent and agree that electoral rule changes are needed," Richard Allan, vice president of policy, said.

    Enhanced regulation

    The report, published four months after the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, also examined tech companies management of their users' data.

    In March, reports surfaced that the now-defunct consultancy firm had illegally obtained personal information from millions of Facebook users. A month later, British politicians revealed that the pro-Brexit campaign group Leave.EU benefited from the work conducted by the firm. 

    Sunday's report concluded the government must do more to guarantee the protection of users' data, and called on policymakers to consider creating a digital "Atlantic Charter" with the US as a means of establishing cooperation over the legal obligations placed on technology companies.

    Full Fact, the UK's independent fact-checking charity, said following the report's publication the government should act immediately to protect democracy but warned against "overreacting".

    "One of the biggest risks here is government overreaction," Full Fact said in a tweet. "The cure could be worse than the disease. Action must be taken that both protects free speech and limits the harm from misinformation."

    Last year, the government announced it would introduce new laws to make Britain the safest place in the world to be online. The policy proposals are expected to be published by the end of 2018.

    Can fake news on social media be stopped?

    Inside Story

    Can fake news on social media be stopped?

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


    YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

    How Moscow lost Riyadh in 1938

    How Moscow lost Riyadh in 1938

    Russian-Saudi relations could be very different today, if Stalin hadn't killed the Soviet ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

    Do you really know the price of milk?

    Do you really know the price of milk?

    Answer as many correct questions as you can and see where your country ranks in the global cost of living.

    The Coming War on China

    The Coming War on China

    Journalist John Pilger on how the world's greatest military power, the US, may well be on the road to war with China.