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02 August 2018

Fake News Spread By Social Networks Has Created ‘Crisis In Our Democracy,’ MPs Warn  

Fake news and disinformation spread by social networks has created a “crisis in our democracy” which must be confronted by making the tech companies take greater responsibility for misleading and harmful content on their sites, an influential parliamentary committee has said.

In the first interim report in its ‘Disinformation and fake news’ inquiry, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee noted the dominance of Facebook, Twitter and Google which acted “as if they were monopolies in their specific area.”

Users had “become the product of the companies” under Facebook and Google’s business models, which rely on the sale of user data to advertisers, leading to “issues of mistrust and misuse” arising, the Committee said.

Committee chair Damian Collins said: "We are facing nothing less than a crisis in our democracy – based on the systematic manipulation of data to support the relentless targeting of citizens, without their consent, by campaigns of disinformation and messages of hate.

“In this inquiry we have pulled back the curtain on the secretive world of the tech giants, which have acted irresponsibly with the vast quantities of data they collect from their users. Despite concerns being raised, companies like Facebook made it easy for developers to scrape user data and to deploy it in other campaigns without their knowledge or consent.

“Throughout our inquiry these companies have tried to frustrate scrutiny and obfuscated in their answers. The light of transparency must be allowed to shine on their operations and they must be made responsible, and liable, for the way in which harmful and misleading content is shared on their sites.”

A key recommendation was for the establishment of a “clear legal liability” to hold tech companies to account for harmful and illegal content on their platforms, and for a new category of tech company, not publisher or platform, to be formulated.

“Tech companies are not passive platforms on which users input content; they reward what is most engaging, because engagement is part of their business model and their growth strategy. They have profited greatly by using this model. This manipulation of the sites by tech companies must be made more transparent,” the Committee said.

In its submission to the inquiry, the News Media Association warned that the tech giants were diverting advertising revenues away from the creators of original journalism, fuelling the rise of fake news and posing a grave threat to the news media industry and democracy itself. 

The NMA called for a number of actions to address this problem including a Competition and Markets Authority investigation into the digital advertising market to examine the dominant position of Google and Facebook, the impact they have had on other media players and the implications for consumers and advertisers.

A regulatory review of the status of Google and Facebook should be conducted to establish whether they should continue to be considered mere intermediaries, and what additional responsibilities they should bear, the NMA said.

in its report, the Committee said it supported the launch of the Caincross Review into the sustainability of the news media industry and proposed that the report should considered as a submission to that review.  

Among its recommendations, the Committee proposed that the Competition and Markets Authority should conduct an audit of the operation of the advertising market on social media to stop advertisers being defrauded when ads are shown to fake accounts.

The Committee also proposed a raft of measures to improve transparency around political advertising including a public register requiring all political advertising work to be listed for public display, and digital imprints on electronic campaigning with a information including the source of funding for the ad.

An educational levy to be raised by social media companies to finance a comprehensive media educational framework should also be established and the Government should put forward proposals for this in its forthcoming White Paper f the Committee added.