03 Aug

UK MPs in the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMSC) have been investigating the challenges and potential threat to democracy posed by ‘fake news’ crowding out real news, and have published their findings in a “Disinformation and ‘fake news’: Interim Report”.

Difficult To Identify & ‘Crowding Out’ Real News

Tory MP Damian Collins made the news this week by highlighting one of the main challenges which is that people struggle to identify “fake news”, and the DCMSC reports focused on how this challenge has been capitalised on by those seeking to influence elections.

The government is also concerned that the sheer volume of disseminated misinformation / fake news is beginning to crowd our real news.

UK Legal Framework Not Fit To Cope

The main points of the report are that fake news poses a threat to democracy, that the UK legal framework is not currently fit to cope with it, and that action needs to be taken by the Government and other regulatory agencies to build resilience against misinformation and disinformation.

The DCMSC Report

The 89 page report which has been published online here https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmcumeds/363/363.pdf covers the issues of the definition, role and legal responsibilities of tech companies, data targeting, based around the Facebook, GSR and Cambridge Analytica allegations, Russian influence in political campaigns, SCL influence in foreign elections, and digital literacy (and how it should be made the fourth pillar of digital education alongside reading, writing and maths).

Background

Some of the more worrying examples of the influence of fake news and the interests of some of the players considered by the government committee included:

– Facebook and Cambridge Analytica’s harvesting and sharing of the personal data of 87 million people to influence the outcome of the US 2016 presidential election and the UK Brexit referendum.

-Political donor Arron Banks being accused of misleading MPs about his meetings with the Russian Embassy, and his walking out of an evidence session to avoid scrutiny on the topic.

-Facebook’s deployment of ‘Free Service’ in Burma (data-free Facebook access) which was found by the United Nations to have played a key role in stirring up hatred against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine State, partly because people could only access news and content via Facebook.

Social Media Companies Made Liable?

The report also contains a recommendation that social media companies should be defined by a new category i.e. not just a ‘platform’ nor a ‘publisher’, and should be made liable to act against harmful or illegal content appearing on their platforms.

Other Recommendations

Other recommendations made in the report include the need to update electoral law, a new tax on social networks could pay for digital literacy programmes in schools, the setting up of a code for political advertising on social media, greater transparency around online advertising, and a “digital Atlantic charter” to protect personal information and rights.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

The business world is influenced by the political world, and vice versa. It is in the interests of businesses and governments that truly fake news is kept to a minimum and that certain parties (e.g. other nation states) aren’t allowed to exert significant influence on elections and referendums.

That said, states / governments around the world have for many years seen social media as a threat. Some governments have opted for a blanket blocking of social media whereas others have sought ways gain some control over it by focusing on its negative aspects and / or by seeking regulation or even back-door access to users. It seems, however, that some international actors have seen social media as an opportunity for influence (e.g. alleged Russian use of Facebook to influence the US election) and this, in turn, has now helped those governments who feel threatened by it e.g. by enabling them to discredit it as a legitimate news source, and thereby boost the credibility of their own state media.

Facebook has, after its involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign, played into the hands of those who would like to see it operated with greater regulation and control. Scandals like these have even helped the cause of world leaders such as President Trump, who appears able to simply say the phrase ‘fake news’ to counter any stories that could show him in a bad light, whether true or not.

Even our ‘real’ news is slanted in newspapers to reflect the views and allegiances of the owner newspaper, and it is commonplace, but accepted, that newspapers print some stories that are false / contain false information that they later simply issue an apology for, and carry on as normal.

Truth and trust are the victims of fake news, and just as governments are happy to focus on it as a threat and as a means to apply pressure to popular media that they can’t overtly control, they can also now see what a powerful tool and opportunity it can be as another tool for influence.