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Facebook slammed for enabling fake news to undermine democracy

19 Feb 2019 / technology Print

Facebook slammed for enabling fake news to undermine democracy

British politicians have harshly criticised social media giant Facebook for wilful evasion of its editorial responsibilities.

The House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has published its final report after an 18-month probe into disinformation and online ‘fake news’ and what its chair calls its “pernicious ability to distort, to disrupt, and to destabilise”.

The committee says that age-old propaganda and politically-aligned bias, which purports to be news, has now taken on new forms and has been hugely magnified by information technology and the ubiquity of social media.

It fears that the public accepts and gives credence to information that reinforces their views, no matter how distorted or inaccurate, while dismissing content with which they do not agree as ‘fake news’.

“This has a polarising effect and reduces the common ground on which reasoned debate, based on objective facts, can take place,” the committee’s report says.

It believes that when these factors are brought to bear in election campaigns then the very fabric of democracy is threatened.

Transparency

The report demands greater transparency in the digital sphere to show the source of content, who has paid for it and why the information has been targeted.

It slams Facebook’s unwillingness or inability to prevent malicious forces who use the platform to threaten and harass others, to publish revenge porn, to disseminate hate speech and propaganda, and to influence elections and democratic processes.

“The big tech companies must not be allowed to expand exponentially, without constraint or proper regulatory oversight.

“But only governments and the law are powerful enough to contain them. The legislative tools already exist. They must now be applied to digital activity, using tools such as privacy laws, data protection legislation, antitrust and competition law,” the report says.

If companies become monopolies they can be broken up, the committee says.

Inspection

And Facebook’s handling of personal data, and its use for political campaigns, are prime and legitimate areas for inspection by regulators.

The platform should not be able to evade all editorial responsibility for the content shared by its users, the politicians declare.

“In a democracy, we need to experience a plurality of voices and, critically, to have the skills, experience and knowledge to gauge the veracity of those voices,” the report continues.

“While the internet has brought many freedoms across the world and an unprecedented ability to communicate, it also carries the insidious ability to distort, to mislead and to produce hatred and instability. It functions on a scale and at a speed that is unprecedented in human history."

The committee describes how one of its witnesses, Tristan Harris from the US-based Center for Humane Technology, had described the current use of technology as “hijacking our minds and society”.

“We must use technology, instead, to free our minds and use regulation to restore democratic accountability. We must make sure that people stay in charge of the machines,” the committee concludes.

In summary, the report calls for a compulsory code of ethics for tech overlords with oversight given to an independent regulator who can launch legal action against companies breaching the code.

The British government must reform current electoral communications laws and rules on overseas involvement in domestic elections.

Harmful content

And social media companies must be obliged to take down known sources of harmful content, including proven sources of disinformation

The committee further finds that Facebook intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws.

MP and committee chair Damian Collins said the report had identified big threats to society and that democracy is at risk from the malicious and relentless targeting of citizens with disinformation and personalised ‘dark adverts’ from unidentifiable sources.

He said 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.

Market power

“Companies like Facebook exercise massive market power which enables them to make money by bullying the smaller technology companies and developers who rely on this platform to reach their customers.

“These are issues that the major tech companies are well aware of, yet continually fail to address. The guiding principle of the ‘move fast and break things’ culture often seems to be that it is better to apologise than ask permission.

“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”.

Contempt

And the report accuses Facebook of treating the committee with contempt and deliberately frustrating its work by giving “incomplete, disingenuous and at times misleading answers”

MP Damian Collins says that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg fails to show the levels of leadership and personal responsibility that should be expected from someone who sits at the top of one of the world’s biggest companies.

The report also calls for the British Competition and Markets Authority to conduct a comprehensive audit of the advertising market on social media and investigate whether Facebook has been involved in anti-competitive practices.

Written submissions

The inquiry into disinformation and 'fake news' was announced in September 2017. The Committee held 23 oral evidence sessions, including one in Washington, received more than 170 written submissions, and heard evidence from 73 individuals.

Representatives from eight countries were invited to join the DCMS Committee to create an 'International Grand Committee', the first of its kind since 1933, to create a united global front in tackling the spread of disinformation.

The inaugural session was held in November 2018.

 

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