Disinformation and 'fake news': Final Report Contents

1Introduction and background

1.The DCMS Committee’s Interim Report, “Disinformation and ‘fake news’” was published in July 2018.1 Since the summer of 2018, the Committee has held three further oral evidence sessions, inviting UK regulators and the Government to give oral evidence, and we received a further 23 written submissions.2 We also held an ‘International Grand Committee’ in November 2018, inviting parliamentarians from nine countries: Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Ireland, Latvia, Singapore and the UK.

2.Our long inquiry into disinformation and misinformation has highlighted the fact that definitions in this field matter. We have even changed the title of our inquiry from “fake news” to “disinformation and ‘fake news’”, as the term ‘fake news’ has developed its own, loaded meaning. As we said in our Interim Report, ‘fake news’ has been used to describe content that a reader might dislike or disagree with. US President Donald Trump has described certain media outlets as ‘The Fake News Media’ and being ‘the true enemy of the people’.3

3.We are, therefore, pleased that the Government accepted the recommendations in our Interim Report and, instead of using the term ‘fake news’, is using ‘disinformation’ to describe “the deliberate creation and sharing of false and/or manipulated information that is intended to deceive and mislead audiences, either for the purposes of causing harm, or for political, personal or financial gain”.4

4.This Final Report builds on the main issues highlighted in the seven areas covered in the Interim Report: the definition, role and legal liabilities of social media platforms; data misuse and targeting, based around the Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and Aggregate IQ (AIQ) allegations, including evidence from the documents we obtained from Six4Three about Facebook’s knowledge of and participation in data-sharing; political campaigning; Russian influence in political campaigns; SCL influence in foreign elections; and digital literacy. We also incorporate analysis by the consultancy firm, 89up, of the repository data we received from Chris Vickery, in relation to the AIQ database.

5.In this Final Report, we build on the principle-based recommendations made in the Interim Report. We look forward to hearing the Government’s response to these recommendations within two months. We hope that this will be much more comprehensive, practical, and constructive than their response to the Interim Report, published in October 2018.5 Several of our recommendations were not substantively answered and there is now an urgent need for the Government to respond to them. We were pleased that the Secretary of State, Rt Hon Jeremy Wright MP, described our exchanges as being part of “an iterative process”, and that this Report will be “quite helpful, frankly, in being able to feed into our further conclusions before we write the White Paper” and that our views will form part of the Government’s considerations.6 We look forward to the Government’s Online Harms White Paper, issued by both the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Home Office, which we understand will be published in early 2019, and will tackle the issues of online harms, including disinformation.7 We have repeated many of the recommendations in our Interim Report to which the Government did not respond. We presume and expect that the Government will respond to both recommendations in this Final Report and those unanswered in the Interim Report.

6.This Final Report is the accumulation of many months of collaboration with other countries, organisations, parliamentarians and individuals from around the world. In total, the Committee held 23 oral evidence sessions, received over 170 written submissions, heard evidence from 73 witnesses, asking over 4,350 questions at these hearings, and had many exchanges of public and private correspondence with individuals and organisations.

7.It has been an inquiry of collaboration, in an attempt to get to grips with the complex technical, political and philosophical issues involved, and to seek practical solutions to those issues. As we did in our Interim Report, we thank all those many individuals and companies, both at home and abroad—including our colleagues and associates in America—for being so generous with sharing their views and information.8

8.We would also like to acknowledge the work of other parliamentarians who have been exploring similar issues at the same time as our inquiry. The Canadian Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics published its report, “Democracy under threat: risks and solutions in the era of disinformation and data monopoly” in December 2018.9 The report highlights the Canadian Committee’s study of the breach of personal data involving Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, and broader issues concerning the use of personal data by social media companies and the way in which such companies are responsible for the spreading of misinformation and disinformation. Their recommendations chime with many of our own in this Report.

9.The US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has an ongoing investigation into the extent of Russian interference in the 2016 US elections. As a result of data sets provided by Facebook, Twitter and Google to the Intelligence Committee—under its Technical Advisory Group—two third-party reports were published in December 2018. New Knowledge, an information integrity company, published “The Tactics and Tropes of the Internet Research Agency”, which highlights the Internet Research Agency’s tactics and messages in manipulating and influencing Americans, and includes a slide desk, highlighting statistics, infographics and thematic presentation of memes.10 The Computational Propaganda Research Project and Graphika published the second report, which looks at activities of known Internet Research Agency accounts, using Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube between 2013 and 2018, to impact US users.11 These two reports will be incorporated into the Intelligence Committee’s own report in 2019.

10.Our ‘International Grand Committee’ meeting, held in November 2018, was the culmination of this collaborative work. The Committee was composed of 24 democratically-elected representatives from nine countries, including the 11 members of the DCMS Committee, who together represent a total of 447 million people. The representatives signed a set of International Principles at that meeting.12 We exchanged ideas and solutions both in private and public, and held a seven-hour oral evidence session. We invited Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook—the social media company that has over 2.25 billion users and made $40 billion in revenue in 2017—to give evidence to us and to this Committee; he chose to refuse, three times.13 Yet, within four hours of the subsequent publication of the documents we obtained from Six4Three—about Facebook’s knowledge of and participation in data sharing—Mr Zuckerberg responded with a post on his Facebook page.14 We thank our ‘International Grand Committee’ colleagues for attending the important session, and we look forward to continuing our collaboration this year.

1 The ‘Disinformation and ‘fake news’: Interim Report’ was the most looked at HTML on the parliamentary website this calendar year, with 13,646 unique page views of the ‘Contents’ page (the average is around 650 views). The PDF had 4,310 unique visits to it from the parliamentary website, whereas the committee-wide average is around 280 views. The Interim Report was the most viewed HTML and second most viewed PDF of any House of Commons Committee Report in the past five years (statistics supplied by the Web and Publications Unit, House of Commons).

3 Donald J.Trump tweet, 29 October 2018.

4 Disinformation and ‘fake news’: Government Response to the Committee’s Fifth Report of Session 2017–19, 23 October 2018, HC 1630 Government response to Interim Report, page 2.

5 As above.

6 Q263, Evidence session, 24 October 2018, The Work of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

7 Disinformation and ‘fake news’: Government Response to the Committee’s Fifth Report of Session 2017–19, 23 October 2018, HC 1630 Government response to Interim Report, page 1.

8 Our expert advisor for the inquiry was Dr Charles Kriel. His Declaration of Interests are: Associate Fellow at the King’s Centre for Strategic Communications (KCSC), King’s College London; Founder, Kriel.Agency; Co-founder and shareholder, Lightful; Advisor, Trinidad and Tobago parliamentary committee on national security. The Committee also commissioned the following people to carry out specific pieces of research for this inquiry: Mike Harris, CEO of 89up; Martin Barnard, CTO of 89up; Josh Feldberg, Director of Digital at 89up; and Peter Pomerantsev, Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics (LSE). We are also grateful to Ashkan Soltani, independent researcher and consultant and former Chief Technologist at the Federal Trade Commission, who advised on paragraphs related to the FTC in Chapter 3.

9 Democracy under threat: risks and solutions in the era of disinformation and data monopoly, Report of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, 42nd Parliament, 1st Session, December 2018.

10 The Disinformation Report, New Knowledge (Renee DiResta, Dr Kris Shaffer, Becky Ruppel, David Sullivan, Robert Matney, Ryan Fox, New Knowledge, and Dr Jonathan Albright, Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia University, and Ben Johnson, Canfield Research, LLC), December 2018.

11 The IRA and Political Polarization in the United States, 2012 - 2018, Philip N. Howard, Bharath Ganesh, Dimitri Liotsiou, University of Oxford, and John Kelly, Camille Francois, Graphica, December 2018.

12 See Annex 2. The Principles will form the basis of the Grand Committee’s work, and have been reported to the House of Commons as a memorandum. The original will be placed in the House of Commons parliamentary archive.

13 Dominic Cummings also refused to give oral evidence to the DCMS Committee. The Committee published its Third Special Report of Session 2017–18, Failure of a witness to answer an Order of the Committee: conduct of Mr Dominic Cummings, on 5 June 2018. The Report informed the House of Mr Cummings’ failure to report to the Committee. The Committee sought an Order of the House requiring Mr Cummings to agree a date for his appearance before the Committee. The House issued the Order, with which Mr Cummings did not comply. The Matter was referred to the Committee of Privileges on 28 June 2018.

14 Details of Mark Zuckerberg’s post can be found in Chapter 3.

Published: 18 February 2019