Disinformation and ‘fake news’: Interim Report Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Introduction and background

1.The term ‘fake news’ is bandied around with no clear idea of what it means, or agreed definition. The term has taken on a variety of meanings, including a description of any statement that is not liked or agreed with by the reader. We recommend that the Government rejects the term ‘fake news’, and instead puts forward an agreed definition of the words ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’. With such a shared definition, and clear guidelines for companies, organisations, and the Government to follow, there will be a shared consistency of meaning across the platforms, which can be used as the basis of regulation and enforcement. (Paragraph 14)

2.We recommend that the Government uses the rules given to Ofcom under the Communications Act 2003 to set and enforce content standards for television and radio broadcasters, including rules relating to accuracy and impartiality, as a basis for setting standards for online content. We look forward to hearing Ofcom’s plans for greater regulation of social media this autumn. We plan to comment on these in our further Report. (Paragraph 15)

3.The Government should support research into the methods by which misinformation and disinformation are created and spread across the internet: a core part of this is fact-checking. We recommend that the Government initiate a working group of experts to create a credible annotation of standards, so that people can see, at a glance, the level of verification of a site. This would help people to decide on the level of importance that they put on those sites. (Paragraph 18)

4.During the course of this inquiry we have wrestled with complex, global issues, which cannot easily be tackled by blunt, reactive and outmoded legislative instruments. In this Report, we suggest principle-based recommendations which are sufficiently adaptive to deal with fast-moving technological developments. We look forward to hearing the Government’s response to these recommendations. (Paragraph 19)

5.We also welcome submissions to the Committee from readers of this interim Report, based on these recommendations, and on specific areas where the recommendations can incorporate work already undertaken by others. This inquiry has grown through collaboration with other countries, organisations, parliamentarians, and individuals, in this country and abroad, and we want this co-operation to continue. (Paragraph 20)

The definition, role and legal responsibilities of tech companies

6.The Data Protection Act 2018 gives greater protection to people’s data than did its predecessor, the 1998 Data Protection Act, and follows the law set out in the GDPR. However, when the UK leaves the EU, social media companies will be able to process personal data of people in the UK from bases in the US, without any coverage of data protection law. We urge the Government to clarify this loophole in a White Paper this Autumn. (Paragraph 30)

7.We welcome the increased powers that the Information Commissioner has been given as a result of the Data Protection Act 2018, and the ability to be able to look behind the curtain of tech companies, and to examine the data for themselves. However, to be a sheriff in the wild west of the internet, which is how the Information Commissioner has described her office, the ICO needs to have the same if not more technical expert knowledge as those organisations under scrutiny. The ICO needs to attract and employ more technically-skilled engineers who not only can analyse current technologies, but have the capacity to predict future technologies. We acknowledge the fact that the Government has given the ICO pay flexibility to retain and recruit more expert staff, but it is uncertain whether pay flexibility will be enough to retain and attract the expertise that the ICO needs. We recommend that the White Paper explores the possibility of major investment in the ICO and the way in which that money should be raised. One possible route could be a levy on tech companies operating in the UK, to help pay for the expanded work of the ICO, in a similar vein to the way in which the banking sector pays for the upkeep of the Financial Conduct Authority. (Paragraph 36)

8.The globalised nature of social media creates challenges for regulators. In evidence Facebook did not accept their responsibilities to identify or prevent illegal election campaign activity from overseas jurisdictions. In the context of outside interference in elections, this position is unsustainable and Facebook, and other platforms, must begin to take responsibility for the way in which their platforms are used. (Paragraph 44)

9.Electoral law in this country is not fit for purpose for the digital age, and needs to be amended to reflect new technologies. We support the Electoral Commission’s suggestion that all electronic campaigning should have easily accessible digital imprint requirements, including information on the publishing organisation and who is legally responsible for the spending, so that it is obvious at a glance who has sponsored that campaigning material, thereby bringing all online advertisements and messages into line with physically published leaflets, circulars and advertisements. We note that a similar recommendation was made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and urge the Government to study the practicalities of giving the Electoral Commission this power in its White Paper. (Paragraph 45)

10.As well as having digital imprints, the Government should consider the feasibility of clear, persistent banners on all paid-for political adverts and videos, indicating the source and making it easy for users to identify what is in the adverts, and who the advertiser is. (Paragraph 46)

11.The Electoral Commission’s current maximum fine limit of £20,000 should be changed to a larger fine based on a fixed percentage of turnover, such as has been granted recently to the Information Commissioner’s Office in the Data Protection Act 2018. Furthermore, the Electoral Commission should have the ability to refer matters to the Crown Prosecution Service, before their investigations have been completed. (Paragraph 47)

12.Electoral law needs to be updated to reflect changes in campaigning techniques, and the move from physical leaflets and billboards to online, micro-targeted political campaigning, as well as the many digital subcategories covered by paid and organic campaigning. The Government must carry out a comprehensive review of the current rules and regulations surrounding political work during elections and referenda, including: increasing the length of the regulated period; definitions of what constitutes political campaigning; absolute transparency of online political campaigning; a category introduced for digital spending on campaigns; reducing the time for spending returns to be sent to the Electoral Commission (the current time for large political organisations is six months); and increasing the fine for not complying with the electoral law. (Paragraph 48)

13.The Government should consider giving the Electoral Commission the power to compel organisations that it does not specifically regulate, including tech companies and individuals, to provide information relevant to their inquiries, subject to due process. (Paragraph 49)

14.The Electoral Commission should also establish a code for advertising through social media during election periods, giving consideration to whether such activity should be restricted during the regulated period, to political organisations or campaigns that have registered with the Commission. Both the Electoral Commission and the ICO should consider the ethics of Facebook or other relevant social media companies selling lookalike political audiences to advertisers during the regulated period, where they are using the data they hold on their customers to guess whether their political interests are similar to those profiles held in target audiences already collected by a political campaign. In particular, we would ask them to consider whether users of Facebook or other relevant social media companies should have the right to opt out from being included in such lookalike audiences. (Paragraph 50)

15.Within social media, there is little or no regulation. Hugely important and influential subjects that affect us—political opinions, mental health, advertising, data privacy—are being raised, directly or indirectly, in these tech spaces. People’s behaviour is being modified and changed as a result of social media companies. There is currently no sign of this stopping. (Paragraph 56)

16.Social media companies cannot hide behind the claim of being merely a ‘platform’, claiming that they are tech companies and have no role themselves in regulating the content of their sites. That is not the case; they continually change what is and is not seen on their sites, based on algorithms and human intervention. However, they are also significantly different from the traditional model of a ‘publisher’, which commissions, pays for, edits and takes responsibility for the content it disseminates. (Paragraph 57)

17.We recommend that a new category of tech company is formulated, which tightens tech companies’ liabilities, and which is not necessarily either a ‘platform’ or a ‘publisher’. We anticipate that the Government will put forward these proposals in its White Paper later this year and hope that sufficient time will be built in for our Committee to comment on new policies and possible legislation. (Paragraph 58)

18.We support the launch of the Government’s Cairncross Review, which has been charged with studying the role of the digital advertising supply chain, and whether its model incentivises the proliferation of inaccurate or misleading news. We propose that this Report is taken into account as a submission to the Cairncross Review. We recommend that the possibility of the Advertising Standards Agency regulating digital advertising be considered as part of the Review. We ourselves plan to take evidence on this question this autumn, from the ASA themselves, and as part of wider discussions with DCMS and Ofcom. (Paragraph 59)

19.It is our recommendation that this process should establish clear legal liability for the tech companies to act against harmful and illegal content on their platforms. This should include both content that has been referred to them for takedown by their users, and other content that should have been easy for the tech companies to identify for themselves. In these cases, failure to act on behalf of the tech companies could leave them open to legal proceedings launched either by a public regulator, and/or by individuals or organisations who have suffered as a result of this content being freely disseminated on a social media platform. (Paragraph 60)

20.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. (Paragraph 64)

21.Facebook and other social media companies should not be in a position of ‘marking their own homework’. As part of its White Paper this Autumn, the Government need to carry out proactive work to find practical solutions to issues surrounding transparency that will work for both users, the Government, and the tech companies. (Paragraph 65)

22.Facebook and other social media companies have a duty to publish and to follow transparent rules. The Defamation Act 2013 contains provisions stating 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. (Paragraph 66)

23.Just as the finances of companies are audited and scrutinised, the same type of auditing and scrutinising should be carried out on the non-financial aspects of technology companies, including their security mechanisms and algorithms, to ensure they are operating responsibly. The Government should provide the appropriate body with the power to audit these companies, including algorithmic auditing, and we reiterate the point that the ICO’s powers should be substantially strengthened in these respects. (Paragraph 72)

24.If companies like Facebook and Twitter fail to act against fake accounts, and properly account for the estimated total of fake accounts on their sites at any one time, this could not only damage the user experience, but potentially defraud advertisers who could be buying target audiences on the basis that the user profiles are connected to real people. We ask the Competition and Markets Authority to consider conducting an audit of the operation of the advertising market on social media. (Paragraph 73)

25.Social media companies have a legal duty to inform users of their privacy rights. Companies give users the illusion of users having freedom over how they control their data, but they make it extremely difficult, in practice, for users to protect their data. Complicated and lengthy terms and conditions, small buttons to protect our data and large buttons to share our data mean that, although in principle we have the ability to practise our rights over our data—through for example the GDPR and the Data Protection Act—in practice it is made hard for us. (Paragraph 75)

26.The UK Government should consider establishing a digital Atlantic Charter as a new mechanism to reassure users that their digital rights are guaranteed. This innovation would demonstrate the UK’s commitment to protecting and supporting users, and establish a formal basis for collaboration with the US on this issue. The Charter would be voluntary, but would be underpinned by a framework setting out clearly the respective legal obligations in signatory countries. This would help ensure alignment, if not in law, then in what users can expect in terms of liability and protections. (Paragraph 76)

27.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 “awful”, yet Facebook cannot show us that it has done anything to stop the spread of disinformation against the Rohingya minority. (Paragraph 82)

28.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 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. (Paragraph 83)

29.A professional global Code of Ethics should be developed by tech companies, in collaboration with this and other governments, academics, and interested parties, including the World Summit on Information Society, to set down in writing what is and what is not acceptable by users on social media, with possible liabilities for companies and for individuals working for those companies, including those technical engineers involved in creating the software for the companies. New products should be tested to ensure that products are fit-for-purpose and do not constitute dangers to the users, or to society. (Paragraph 89)

30.The Code of Ethics should be the backbone of tech companies’ work, and should be continually referred to when developing new technologies and algorithms. If companies fail to adhere to their own Code of Ethics, the UK Government should introduce regulation to make such ethical rules compulsory. (Paragraph 90)

31.The dominance of a handful of powerful tech companies, such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, has resulted in their behaving as if they were monopolies in their specific area. While this portrayal of tech companies does not appreciate the benefits of a shared service, where people can communicate freely, there are considerations around the data on which those services are based, and how these companies are using the vast amount of data they hold on users. In its White Paper, the Government must set out why the issue of monopolies is different in the tech world, and the measures needed to protect users’ data. (Paragraph 91)

The issue of data targeting, based around the Facebook, GSR and Cambridge Analytica allegations

32.Over the past month, Facebook has been investing in adverts globally, proclaiming the fact that “Fake accounts are not our friends.” Yet the serious failings in the company’s operations that resulted in data manipulation, resulting in misinformation and disinformation, have occurred again. Over four months after Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica for its alleged data harvesting, Facebook suspended another company, Crimson Hexagon—which has direct contracts with the US government and Kremlin-connected Russian organisations—for allegedly carrying out the same offence. (Paragraph 133)

33.We are concerned about the administrators’ proposals in connection with SCL Elections Ltd, as listed in Companies House, and the fact that Emerdata Ltd is listed as the ultimate parent company of SCL Elections Ltd, and is the major creditor and owed over £6.3 million. The proposals also describe laptops from the SCL Elections Ltd offices being stolen, and laptops returned by the ICO, following its investigations, also being stolen. We recommend that the National Crime Agency, if it is not already, should investigate the connections between the company SCL Elections Ltd and Emerdata Ltd. (Paragraph 134)

34.The allegations of data harvesting revealed the extent of data misuse, made possible by Cambridge University’s Dr Kogan and facilitated by Facebook, GSR, and manipulated into micro-targeting Cambridge Analytica and its associated companies, through AIQ. The SCL Group and associated companies have gone into administration, but other companies are carrying out very similar work. Many of the individuals involved in SCL and Cambridge Analytica appear to have moved on to new corporate vehicles. Cambridge Analytica is currently being investigated by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) (and, as a leading academic institution, Cambridge University also has questions to answer from this affair about the activities of Dr Kogan). (Paragraph 135)

35.We invited Alexander Nix twice to give evidence; both times he was evasive in his answers and the standard of his answers fell well below those expected from a CEO of an organisation. His initial evidence concerning GSR was not the whole truth. There is a public interest in getting to the heart of what happened, and Alexander Nix must take responsibility for failing to provide the full picture of events, for whatever reason. With respect to GSR, he misled us. We will give a final verdict on Mr Nix’s evidence when we complete the inquiry. (Paragraph 136)

Political campaigning

36.We recommend that the Government look at ways in which the UK law defines digital campaigning. This should include online adverts that use political terminology that are not sponsored by a specific political party. There should be a public register for political advertising, requiring all political advertising work to be listed for public display so that, even if work is not requiring regulation, it is accountable, clear, and transparent for all to see. There should be a ban on micro-targeted political advertising to lookalikes online, and a minimum limit for the number of voters sent individual political messages should be agreed, at a national level. (Paragraph 142)

37.We reiterate our support for the Cairncross Review and will engage with the consultation in the coming months. In particular, we hope that Frances Cairncross will give due weight to the role of digital advertising in elections, and will make concrete recommendations about how clearer rules can be introduced to ensure fairness and transparency. (Paragraph 143)

38.The Government should investigate ways in which to enforce transparency requirements on tech companies, to ensure that paid-for political advertising data on social media platforms, particularly in relation to political adverts, are publicly accessible, are clear and easily searchable, and identify the source, explaining who uploaded it, who sponsored it, and its country of origin. This information should be imprinted into the content, or included in a banner at the top of the content. Such transparency would also enable members of the public to understand the behaviour and intent of the content providers, and it would also enable interested academics and organisations to conduct analyses and to highlight trends. (Paragraph 144)

39.Tech companies must also address the issue of shell corporations and other professional attempts to hide identity in advert purchasing, especially around election advertising. There should be full disclosure of targeting used as part of advert transparency. The Government should explore ways of regulating on the use of external targeting on social media platforms, such as Facebook’s Custom Audiences. We expect to see the detail of how this will be achieved in its White Paper later this year. (Paragraph 145)

40.Data sets allegedly enabled Leave.EU to push their message to groups of people that they might not otherwise have had information about. This evidence informed our inquiry, backing up concerns that data is being harvested and utilised from many people unwittingly and used for purposes of which they may not be aware. It is alleged that Leave.EU obtained data used during the Referendum from insurance data from companies owned by Arron Banks. The Information Commissioner’s Office is investigating both the alleged misuse of customer data from Arron Banks’ Eldon Insurance Services Ltd and the misuse of that data by the call centre staff, to make calls on behalf of Leave.EU. These are extremely serious allegations. We look forward to hearing the final results of the ICO’s investigations, when it reports in October 2018. (Paragraph 159)

Russian influence in political campaigns

41.In November 2017, the Prime Minister accused Russia of meddling in elections and planting ‘fake news’ in an attempt to ‘weaponise information’ and sow discord in the West. It is clear from comments made by the then Secretary of State in evidence to us that he shares her concerns. However, there is a disconnect between the Government’s expressed concerns about foreign interference in elections, and tech companies intractability in recognising the issue. We would anticipate that this issue will be addressed, with possible plans of action, in the White Paper this Autumn. (Paragraph 176)

42.Arron Banks is, reportedly, the largest individual donor in UK political history. As far as we understand, he met with the Russian Ambassador, for the first time, in the run up to the EU Referendum. Evidence discloses that he discussed business ventures within Russia and beyond, and other financial ventures, in a series of meetings with Russian Embassy staff. Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore have misled the Committee on the number of meetings that took place with the Russian Embassy and walked out of the Committee’s evidence session to avoid scrutiny of the content of the discussions with the Russian Embassy. (Paragraph 185)

43.From the emails that we have seen, it is evident that Arron Banks had many meetings with Russian officials, including the Russian Ambassador, Alexander Yakovenko, between 2015 and 2017. The meetings involved discussions about business deals involving Alrosa, the Russian diamond monopoly, the purchase of gold mines, funded by Sberbank, the Russian-state bank, and the transferring of confidential documents to Russian officials. Mr. Banks seemed to want to hide the extent of his contacts with Russia, while his spokesman Andy Wigmore’s statements have been unreliable—by his own admission—and cannot be taken at face value. Mr Wigmore is a self-confessed liar and, as a result, little significance can be attached to anything that he says. It is unclear whether Mr. Banks profited from business deals arising from meetings arranged by Russian officials. We understand that the National Crime Agency (NCA) is investigating these matters. We believe that they should be given full access to any relevant information that will aid their inquiry. (Paragraph 186)

44.Arron Banks is believed to have donated £8.4 million to the Leave campaign, the largest political donation in British politics, but it is unclear from where he obtained that amount of money. He failed to satisfy us that his own donations had, in fact, come from sources within the UK. At the same time, we have evidence of Mr. Banks’ discussions with Russian Embassy contacts, including the Russian Ambassador, over potential gold and diamond deals, and the passing of confidential information by Mr Banks. The Electoral Commission should pursue investigations into donations that Arron Banks made to the Leave campaign, to verify that the money was not sourced from abroad. Should there be any doubt, the matter should be referred to the NCA. The Electoral Commission should come forward with proposals for more stringent requirements for major donors to demonstrate the source of their donations. (Paragraph 191)

45.The Electoral Commission has recommended that there should be a change in the rules covering political spending, so that limits are put on the amount of money an individual can donate. We agree with this recommendation, and urge the Government to take this proposal on board. (Paragraph 192)

46.We heard evidence that showed alleged Russian interference in the Spanish Referendum, in October 2017. During the Referendum campaign, Russia provoked conflict, through a mixture of misleading information and disinformation, between people within Spain, and between Spain and other member states in the EU, and in NATO. We heard evidence that showed that Russia had a special interest in discrediting the Spanish democratic system, through Russian state affiliated TV organisations spreading propaganda that benefitted those wanting independence in Catalonia. (Paragraph 197)

47.We recommend that the UK Government approaches other governments and follows the recommendation agreed by US and EU representatives, including representatives from this Committee, at the recent inter-parliamentary meeting at the Atlantic Council. The Government should share information on risks, vulnerabilities, and best practices to counter Russian interference, and co-ordinate between parliamentarians across the world. Only by sharing information, resources, and best practice will this Government be able to combat Russian interference in our elections. We look forward to a White Paper this autumn, and the opportunity for the Government to set out the practical steps that it will follow to ensure greater global co-operation to combat Russian interference. (Paragraph 202)

48.Just as six Select Committees have joined forces in an attempt to combat Russian influence in our political discourse, so the Government should co-ordinate joint working with the different relevant Departments. Those Departments should not be working in silos, but should work together, sharing data, intelligence and expert knowledge, to counter the emerging threat of Russia, and other malign players. (Paragraph 203)

49.We note that the Mueller Inquiry into Russian interference in the United States is ongoing. It would be wrong for Robert Mueller’s investigation to take the lead about related issues in the UK. We recommend that the Government makes a statement about how many investigations are currently being carried out into Russian interference in UK politics and ensures that a co-ordinated structure exists, involving the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner, as well as other relevant authorities. (Paragraph 204)

SCL influence in foreign elections

50.We received disturbing evidence, some of which we have published, some of which we have not, of activities undertaken by the SCL-linked companies in various political campaigns dating from around 2010, including the use of hacking, of disinformation, and of voter suppression, and the use of the services of Black Cube, an Israeli private intelligence service, whose work allegedly included illegal hacking. We also heard of the links between SCL and Christian Kalin of Henley Partners and their involvement in election campaigns, in which Mr Kalin already ran or subsequently launched citizenship-by-investment programmes, involving the selling of countries passports to investors. SCL’s alleged undermining of democracies in many countries, by the active manipulation of the facts and events, was happening alongside work done by the SCL Group on behalf of the UK Government, the US Government, and other allied governments. We do not have the remit or the capacity to investigate these claims ourselves, but we urge the Government to ensure that the National Crime Agency thoroughly investigates these allegations. (Paragraph 231)

Digital literacy

51.We recommend that the Government put forward proposals in its White Paper for an educational levy to be raised by social media companies, to finance a comprehensive educational framework (developed by charities and non-governmental organisations) and based online. Digital literacy should be the fourth pillar of education, alongside reading, writing and maths. The DCMS Department should co-ordinate with the Department for Education, in highlighting proposals to include digital literacy, as part of the Physical, Social, Health and Economic curriculum (PSHE). The social media educational levy should be used, in part, by the Government, to finance this additional part of the curriculum. (Paragraph 246)

52.There should be a unified public awareness initiative, supported by the Departments for DCMS, Health, and Education, with additional information and guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Electoral Commission, and funded in part by the tech company levy. Such an initiative would set the context of social media content, explain to people what their rights over their data are, within the context of current legislation, and set out ways in which people can interact with political campaigning on social media. This initiative should be a rolling programme, and not one that occurs only before general elections or referenda. (Paragraph 247)

53.The public should be made more aware of their ability to report digital campaigning that they think is misleading, or unlawful. We look forward to the work that the Electoral Commission is planning, to bring this to the fore. (Paragraph 248)

Published: 29 July 2018