Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Learning from the Brexit and Trump Campaigns: Comparing British and American attempts to fight 'Fake News'

On the British hearings in Washington about Social Media's role in spreading political misinformation

It didn’t get much mainstream press in North America, but last week 11 British MPs held hearings in Washington investigating US technology companies and their responsibility for monitoring and/or preventing malicious "news" content on their platforms.  This hearing was the first ever select committee session to be live-streamed from abroad.  Why the committee chose to hold its hearings in the US is unclear, but it may be a sign of both how seriously the UK is taking this issue and of how important it is that the inquiry be highly visible on both sides of the Atlantic.

Regardless of the unique format, on 8 February, 2018, as part of a inquiry into “fake news” by the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the British MPs questioned representatives from Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter for about four hours.  The approach of the British MPs and their refusal to accept the technology companies’ shrugging off of any responsibility for the paid content on their platforms is in stark contrast to the largely hands-off approach taken by American authorities.

The UK committee’s fake news inquiry actually commenced in January 2017, only to be suspended during the general election last year.  The inquiry was a response to reporting that propaganda and fake news reporting had played an unprecedented role in both the 2016 Brexit campaign and the US presidential election and resulting concern of its impact on democratic process in the future.  The Committee Chair, MP Damian Collins, argued in 2017 that “[t]he growing phenomenon of fake news is a threat to democracy” and, moreover, the major tech companies bore some responsibility to address this growing issue.  Reading the transcript of the hearing indicates both the technical sophistication of the British panel and their unwillingness to allow the tech companies to get away with facile answers.

Generally, the issues raised by British lawmakers are the same as those raised in the US Congressional committee hearings with the same tech companies last year.  The American hearings were interested in the lack of transparency in political advertising on social media sites.  The British committee was particularly concerned not only about the lack of transparency for consumers of news, but also the tech companies’ unwillingness to share with governments the information it has about the origin of problematic content, and indeed, an unwillingness to acknowledge there is a problem at all.

Whose Responsibility?

Indeed, throughout the hearings the MPs made clear that they did not think the tech companies had been taking these issues seriously enough.  When Facebook’s representatives said they had not seen anything to suggest there had been foreign interference in the Brexit referendum, Chairman Collins exclaimed, “But you haven’t looked, have you? … You haven’t looked!"  In response, Simon Milner, Facebook’s Policy Director, UK, Middle East and Africa, said that unlike in the US election, Facebook had not been given any intelligence reports to suggest that there was any such interference.  Collins expressed cool disbelief:

You were insinuating that there was a lack of intelligence in the U.K. that had existed in America, and that the absence of intelligence support from the U.K. meant that that work had not already been done. But in America, it was not intelligence reports from the Government that led to that work being done; it was pressure from Congress, which led to what they would see, I think, as the company doing the bare minimum.

Milner’s suggestion that Facebook required some external cause for concern before taking on the responsibility of investigating was at odds with the position the companies had taken before the US congressional committees where they had emphasized that malicious content comprised a very small proportion of overall content on their services, and that they were doing everything they could to stamp it out.

The issue of the companies’ own transparency was raised as a problem in determining from the outside if there was a problem of foreign interference:  As Ian Lucas, MP, put it, “You have everything. You have all the information. We have none of it, because you will not show it to us.”  The MPs were skeptical of the response from the companies that their business incentives aligned with lawmakers’ public policy concerns. In response to YouTube’s assertion that it dedicated significant resources to managing content on its platform, Collins called the company’s allocation of $10 million a year “a small sticking plaster over a gaping wound.”  

We have heard the expression “top priority” a lot. If we judge the company based on what it does rather than what it says, the top priority is maximising advertising revenue from the platform, and a very small proportion of that is reinvested into dealing with some of the more harmful content. That is one of the reasons why we are here and why social concern about this is growing.

More specifically, during the British hearing the MPs repeatedly expressed frustration that the tech companies’ seemed to have had no scruple about allowing foreign-paid advertising on their platforms during recent elections.  Simon Milner, representative for Facebook. suggested that responsibility for this issue lay not with the social media platform but with the British electoral commission or the persons who had purchased the illegal advertisements. Collins expressed incredulity at this answer:

Chair: It is extraordinary: if Facebook were a bank, and somebody was laundering money through it, the response to that would not be, “Well, that is a matter for the person who is laundering the money and for the authorities to stop them doing it. It is nothing to do with us. We are just a mere platform through which the laundering took place.” That bank would be closed down and people would face prosecution.
What you are describing here is the same attitude—it is up to the Electoral Commission to identify the person. Even though you know when money is being paid or linked to accounts outside a country, you do not detect it. We hear a lot about the systems, but they are not picking that up at all. Many people would find that astonishing.

In contrast to the British suggestion that prosecution of the social media giants might be the answer to problem them of turning a blind eye to practices that contravene electoral laws, American Senators Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar have merely introduced a proposal for the Honest Ads Act, which would mandate much greater transparency and disclosure for online political advertising.

To Regulate or Not to Regulate?

The UK is clearly moving in a direction of tighter regulation rather than merely rules for transparency.  Conservative MP Julian Knight, during the hearing referred to the recent German law creating liability for large fines if companies fail to take down “manifestly unlawful content” (which includes hate speech, pornography and potentially fake news) sufficiently quickly.  Suggesting that this law had caused a decline in the prominence of such content within Germany, Knight said to the companies’ representatives: “Surely this is strong evidence that the way in which Western democracies protect themselves is to regulate you.”
Perhaps the issue that indicates the starkest difference between the way the British and the Americans are tackling the problem is on the definition of “fake news”.  American lawmakers have worried during their hearings about stifling political debate, and the difficulty of finding any objective way of determining content’s accuracy.  Congressional hearings indicated there was more acceptance among American lawmakers of the tech companies claim that should not be asked to become “arbiters of truth.”  The British Committee, in contrast, see these companies simply abdicating any responsibility, particularly as social media platforms are not neutral transmitters of content.  As the MPs rightly shot back at the Facebook representatives:

Jo Stevens: Ms Bickert, my colleague just said that you are in fact the largest disseminator—some would argue publisher—of news in the world. You make de facto publishing decisions every day. We have heard you describe that. You design the algorithms and the algorithms then decide what we read and see on Facebook every day. Those algorithms are systematic. They are not objective and they inherit the biases of the people who are developing them.

….  Your algorithms enable hyper-personalised content that is really finely grained to be directed and targeted towards specific individuals. Your advertising helps to do that, but most individuals who use Facebook do not even realise that you are doing that. They do not realise that what comes up on their Facebook—
Monika Bickert: The newsfeed.
Jo Stevens: Yes. What comes up there is what you are targeting towards them. So there is a huge power imbalance there, because you are controlling it and the person who is receiving it has no control over it. That kind of reminds me—if you will forgive the analogy—of an abusive relationship where coercive control is going on. Somebody is deciding what you see, hear and read, what you have access to. Can you see the parallels with that? Can you see why I would be concerned about that?
Similarly, Rebecca Pow, MP, said she was “staggered” by the companies saying they did not have rules on truth:

To me, that gets to the nub of what we are all talking about today. As a platform, you are openly able to spread disinformation … What worries me is what this is doing to our children. Shouldn’t you take some responsibility for it? If you cannot and are not able to and your policing system is not up to it, surely some sort of regulation or body will have to be put in place to ensure that the next generation is safe.

Giles Watling, MP, followed-up simply: “You have enormous power, and with enormous power comes great responsibility. You seem to want to duck that.”

Politics and Truth

Despite the robust attack on the irresponsibility of the social media giants, there is an element of hypocrisy in the British Committee’s approach.  During the Brexit campaign there was the controversy over the clearly false claims made by the major campaigns.
Indeed, the Tories that led the Brexit campaign and who now lead the British Committee were the worst offenders in promoting fraudulent and misleading claims.  The tech companies during the hearing also seized on the fact that under British electoral law, political advertisements are exempt from the rules that govern truth in advertising.  As Nick Pickles of Twitter noted:

During an election campaign in the UK, political advertisements are exempt from the advertising rules, so that would be taking regulation of UK political advertising and giving it to American technology companies. In terms of the democratic process, that seems to me quite a robust step to take.

The other media tech giants all suggested that a cooperative rather than regulatory was more likely to be productive and avoid unintended consequences.  Determining who and what is legitimate in the political sphere is inherently fraught.  Nonetheless, other statements by the British government suggest that regulation is the direction that the British are heading. Prime Minister Theresa May devoted a large portion of her speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos at the end of January to the issues of social media.  She forecast “new rules and legislation” to deal with the loss of trust in social media companies, and reiterated her goal of making the U.K. “the safest place to be online.” Alongside May’s statement is the recent Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper.   

Both pronouncements are long on rhetoric but short on detail.  It does seem apparent, however, that the British, unlike the Americans, are moving towards regulating social media content in an effort to diminish the reach of “fake” and “malicious” news.  There will undoubtedly be issues regarding how any such regulation deals with the legitimate fears of civil rights advocates about political censorship.  We will have to wait to see just what is proposed and how successful it will be.

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