A UK parliamentary committee which has been running a multi-month investigation into the impact of online disinformation on political campaigning — and on democracy itself — has published a preliminary report highlighting what it describes as “significant concerns” over the risks to “shared values and the integrity of our democratic institutions”.
It’s calling for “urgent action” from government and regulatory bodies to “build resilience against misinformation and disinformation into our democratic system”.
“We are faced with a crisis concerning the use of data, the manipulation of our data, and the targeting of pernicious views,” the DCMS committee warns. “In particular, we heard evidence of Russian state-sponsored attempts to influence elections in the US and the UK through social media, of the efforts of private companies to do the same, and of law-breaking by certain Leave campaign groups in the UK's EU Referendum in their use of social media.”
The inquiry, which was conceived of and begun in the previous UK parliament — before relaunching in fall 2017, after the June General Election — has found itself slap-bang in the middle of one of the major scandals of the modern era, as revelations about the extent of disinformation and social media data misuse and allegations of election fiddling and law bending have piled up thick and fast, especially in recent months (albeit, concerns have been rising steadily, ever since the 2016 US presidential election and revelations about the cottage industry of fake news purveyors spun up to feed US voters, in addition to Kremlin troll farm activity.)
Yet the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data misuse saga (which snowballed into a major global scandal this March) is just one of the strands of the committee’s inquiry. Hence they’ve opted to publish multiple reports — the initial one recommending urgent actions for the government and regulators, which will be followed by another report covering the inquiry’s “wider terms of reference” and including a closer look at the role of advertising. (The latter report is slated to land in the fall.)
For now, the committee is suggesting “principle-based recommendations” designed to be “sufficiently adaptive to deal with fast-moving technological developments”.
Among a very long list of recommendations are:
How the government will respond to the committee’s laundry list of recommendations for cleaning up online political advertising remains to be seen, although the issue of Kremlin-backed disinformation campaigns was at least raised publicly by the prime minister last year. Although Theresa May has been rather quieter on revelations about EU referendum-related data misuse and election law breaches.
While the committee uses the term “tech companies” throughout its report to refer to multiple companies, Facebook specifically comes in for some excoriating criticism, with the committee accusing the company of misleading by omission and actively seeking to impede the progress of the inquiry.
It also reiterates its call — for something like the fifth time at this point — for founder Mark Zuckerberg to give evidence. Facebook has provided several witnesses to the committee, including its CTO, but Zuckerberg has declined its requests he appear, even via video link. (And even though he did find time for a couple of hours in front of the EU parliament back in May.)
The committee writes:
We undertook fifteen exchanges of correspondence with Facebook, and two oral evidence sessions, in an attempt to elicit some of the information that they held, including information regarding users' data, foreign interference and details of the so-called '˜dark ads' that had reached Facebook users. Facebook consistently responded to questions by giving the minimal amount of information possible, and routinely failed to offer information relevant to the inquiry, unless it had been expressly asked for. It provided witnesses who have been unwilling or unable to give full answers to the Committee's questions. This is the reason why the Committee has continued to press for Mark Zuckerberg to appear as a witness as, by his own admission, he is the person who decides what happens at Facebook.
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. Facebook has all of the information. Those outside of the company have none of it, unless Facebook chooses to release it. Facebook was reluctant to share information with the Committee, which does not bode well for future transparency. We ask, once more, for Mr Zuckerberg to come to the Committee to answer the many outstanding questions to which Facebook has not responded adequately, to date.
The committee suggests that the UK’s Defamation Act 2013 means Facebook and other social media companies have a duty to publish and to follow transparent rules — arguing that the Act has provisions which state that “if a user is defamed on social media, and the offending individual cannot be identified, the liability rests with the platform”.
“We urge the government to examine the effectiveness of these provisions, and to monitor tech companies to ensure they are complying with court orders in the UK and to provide details of the source of disputed content– including advertisements — to ensure that they are operating in accordance with the law, or any future industry Codes of Ethics or Conduct. Tech companies also have a responsibility to ensure full disclosure of the source of any political advertising they carry,” it adds.
The committee is especially damning of Facebook’s actions in Burma (as indeed many others have also been), condemning the company’s failure to prevent its platform from being used to spread hate and fuel violence against the Rohingya ethnic minority — and citing the UN’s similarly damning assessment.
“Facebook has hampered our efforts to get information about their company throughout this inquiry. It is as if it thinks that the problem will go away if it does not share information about the problem, and reacts only when it is pressed. Time and again we heard from Facebook about mistakes being made and then (sometimes) rectified, rather than designing the product ethically from the beginning of the process. Facebook has a '˜Code of Conduct', which highlights the principles by which Facebook staff carry out their work, and states that employees are expected to 'œact lawfully, honestly, ethically, and in the best interests of the company while performing duties on behalf of Facebook'. Facebook has fallen well below this standard in Burma,” it argues.
The committee also directly blames Facebook’s actions for undermining the UK’s international aid efforts in the country — writing:
The United Nations has named Facebook as being responsible for inciting hatred against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma, through its '˜Free Basics' service. It provides people free mobile phone access without data charges, but is also responsible for the spread disinformation and propaganda. The CTO of Facebook, Mike Schroepfer described the situation in Burma as 'œawful', yet Facebook cannot show us that it has done anything to stop the spread of disinformation against the Rohingya minority.
The hate speech against the Rohingya'”built up on Facebook, much of which is disseminated through fake accounts'”and subsequent ethnic cleansing, has potentially resulted in the success of DFID's [the UK Department for International Development] aid programmes being greatly reduced, based on the qualifications they set for success. The activity of Facebook undermines international aid to Burma, including the UK Government's work. Facebook is releasing a product that is dangerous to consumers and deeply unethical. We urge the Government to demonstrate how seriously it takes Facebook's apparent collusion in spreading disinformation in Burma, at the earliest opportunity. This is a further example of Facebook failing to take responsibility for the misuse of its platform.
We reached out to Facebook for a response to the committee’s report, and in an email statement — attributed to Richard Allan, VP policy — the company told us:
The Committee has raised some important issues and we were pleased to be able to contribute to their work.
We share their goal of ensuring that political advertising is fair and transparent and agree that electoral rule changes are needed. We have already made all advertising on Facebook more transparent. We provide more information on the Pages behind any ad and you can now see all the ads any Facebook Page is running, even if they are not targeted at you. We are working on ways to authenticate and label political ads in the UK and create an archive of those ads that anyone can search. We will work closely with the UK Government and Electoral Commission as we develop these new transparency tools.
We're also investing heavily in both people and technology to keep bad content off our services. We took down 2.5 million pieces of hate speech and disabled 583 million fake accounts globally in the first quarter of 2018 '” much of it before anyone needed to report this to Facebook. By using technology like machine learning, artificial intelligence and computer vision, we can detect more bad content and take action more quickly.
The statement makes no mention of Burma. Nor indeed of the committee’s suggestion that social media firms should be taxed to pay for defending democracy and civil society against the damaging excesses of their tools.
On Thursday, rolling out its latest ads transparency features, Facebook announced that users could now see the ads a Page is running across Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and its partner network “even if those ads aren't shown to you”.
To do so, users have to log into Facebook, visit any Page and select 'œInfo and Ads'. “You'll see ad creative and copy, and you can flag anything suspicious by clicking on ‘Report Ad’,” it added.
It also flagged a ‘more Page information’ feature that users can use to get more details about a Page such as recent name changes and the date it was created.
“The vast majority of ads on Facebook are run by legitimate organizations — whether it's a small business looking for new customers, an advocacy group raising money for their cause, or a politician running for office. But we've seen that bad actors can misuse our products, too,” Facebook wrote, adding that the features being announced “are just the start” of its efforts “to improve” and “root out abuse”.
The committee’s interim report was pushed out at the weekend ahead of the original embargo as a result of yet more Brexiteer-induced drama — after the campaign director of the UK’s official Brexit supporting ‘Vote Leave’ campaign, Dominic Cummings, deliberately broke the embargo by publishing the report on his blog in order to spin his own response before the report had been widely covered by the media.
Last week the Electoral Commission published its own report following a multi-month investigation into Brexit campaign spending. The oversight body concluded that Vote Leave broke UK electoral law by massively overspending via a joint working arrangement with another Brexit supporting campaign (BeLeave) — an arrangement via which an additional almost half a million pound’s worth of targeted Facebook ads were co-ordinated by Vote Leave in the final days of the campaign when it had already reached its spending limit (Facebook finally released some of the 2016 Brexit campaign ads that had been microtargeted at UK voters via its platform to the committee, which published these ads last week. Many of Vote Leave’s (up to that point ‘dark’) adverts show the official Brexit campaign generating fake news of its own with ads that, for example, claim Turkey is on the cusp of joining the EU and flooding the UK with millions of migrants; or spreading the widely debunked claim that the UK would be able to spend £350M more per week on the NHS if it left the EU.
In general, dog whistle racism appears to have been Vote Leave’s preferred ‘persuasion’ tactic of microtargeted ad choice — and thanks to Facebook’s ad platform, no one other than each ad’s chosen recipients would have been likely to see the messages.
Cummings also comes in for a major roasting in the committee’s report after his failure to appear before it to answer questions, despite multiple summons (including an unprecedented House of Commons motion ordering him to appear — which he nonetheless also ignored).
“Mr Cummings' contemptuous behaviour is unprecedented in the history of this Committee's inquiries and underlines concerns about the difficulties of enforcing co-operation with Parliamentary scrutiny in the modern age,” it writes, adding: “We will return to this issue in our Report in the autumn, and believe it to be an urgent matter for consideration by the Privileges Committee and by Parliament as a whole.”
On his blog, Cummings claims the committee offered him dates they knew he couldn’t do; slams its investigation as ‘fake news’; moans copiously that the committee is made up of Remain supporting MPs; and argues that the investigation should be under oath — as his major defense seems to be that key campaign whistleblowers are lying (despite ex-Cambridge Analytica employee Chris Wylie and ex-BeLeave treasurer Shahmir Sanni having provided copious amounts of documentary evidence to back up their claims; evidence which both the Electoral Commission and the UK’s data watchdog, the ICO, have found convincing enough to announce some of the largest fines they can issue — in the latter case, the ICO announced its intention to fine Facebook the maximum penalty possible (under the prior UK data protection regime) for failing to protect users’ information. (The data watchdog is continuing to investigate multiple aspects of what is a hugely complex (technically and politically) online ad ops story, and earlier this month commissioner Elizabeth Denham called for an ‘ethical pause’ on the use of online ad platforms for microtargeting voters with political messages, arguing — like the DCMS committee — that there are very real and very stark risks for democratic processes).
There’s much, much more self-piteous whining on Cummings blog for anyone who wants to make themselves queasy reading. But bear in mind the Electoral Commission’s withering criticism of the Vote Leave campaign specifically — for not so much failure to co-operate with its investigation but intentional obstruction.