If Silicon Valley won't stop fake news, we will | Damian Collins

Around the world, people’s data is being gathered and used in order to micro-target them with a relentless stream of promoted content. Governments and elected representatives are sitting up and taking notice. Is that “anti-tech”? That would be a bit like saying that governments are “anti-car” for requiring people to wear seatbelts.

The mounting evidence of how easily user data can be scraped from social media sites, and then the lack of oversight of what happens to it, is rightly a cause for concern. When we hear that the Russians have been using Facebook custom audience tools to target adverts that have illegally sought to interfere in the elections of other countries, we have to take notice, particularly when the company itself initially failed to spot it.

We live in a world where people increasingly see social media not just as a gateway to the internet, but as a main source of news. That’s why we have to look at the threat that campaigns of disinformation, which spread through websites like Facebook and Twitter, pose to our democracy.

The recommendations made in the recent report of the House of Commons digital, culture, media and sport select committee, which has considered all of these issues, create a new framework for establishing requirements of greater responsibility from tech companies.

The inevitable tension that policy ideas like these create was described by the former director of BBC News, James Harding, in his Hugh Cudlipp lecture in March, as part of a battle between Silicon Valley (representing the tech industries) and Capitol Hill (representing the politicians). What we are suggesting from the perspective of the UK, is that if the Valley won’t come to the Hill, the Hill is going to have to come to the Valley.

We believe that by creating new legal liabilities for social media companies to act against known sources of harmful and misleading content, it is more likely that they will do so. When content breaches the community guidelines of social media sites, it should be taken down – but often it’s not, even when referred back to the company by users.

We also believe that more could be achieved through artificial intelligence to proactively identify harmful content. It would not be right for tech companies to be asked to become the arbiters of political opinion expressed on social media – that would clearly be an infringement of free speech. However, they should make sure that people who receive targeted political messages understand who is sending it to them, and which country they are based in. I am pleased to see that this is one area where Facebook in particular is making progress.

One of the best ways to inform users about likely sources of fake news would be to give them as much information as possible about the organisation that is sharing it, and in particular if, unlike mainstream news agencies, they are deliberately trying to hide their location and identity. There is an inevitable debate to be had here about whether social media users who are generating news and political content should be allowed to hide behind virtual private networks (VPNs). However, if we see this as a battle to protect democracy itself, then I believe we have to favour greater transparency.

The problems we have been looking at over the last two years are only likely to become more challenging, as new technologies deliver ever more sophisticated forms of disinformation and fake news. It will soon be easy to make fake films of, say, a politician giving an inflammatory speech and share them online using augmented reality. Such a tactic, used late in an election campaign, could cause a huge amount of damage before the content is proven to be made up.

We are going to need the tech companies to do more to help us combat threats like these. There are ethical questions, too, about the way data is gathered and used on social media. Is it right, for example, that if a Facebook user has chosen not to reveal their political affiliation, that Facebook could still politically profile them based on their data and then sell that information to a campaign, based on an analysis of their data profile?

The tech companies have made their money by using data to create ever more perfect tools to target adverts at us. But there is a price to pay for citizens if the openness of their systems and the power of the data they hold can be abused by bad actors to undermine our democracies. I believe there is more we can do together to face this threat, but ultimately, it is the responsibility of parliaments to keep people safe and hold big organisations to account for the power that they hold.

  • Damian Collins is Conservative MP for Folkestone and Hythe


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