Our Committee is delivering this Report to Parliament in the middle of an unprecedented health and consequential economic crisis. But our Report focuses on a different form of crisis, one with roots that extend far deeper, and are likely to last far longer than COVID-19. This is a virus that affects all of us in the UK - a pandemic of ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’. If allowed to flourish these counterfeit truths will result in the collapse of public trust, and without trust democracy as we know it will simply decline into irrelevance.
The situation is that serious.
In the digital world, our belief in what we see, hear and read is being distorted to the point at which we no longer know who or what to trust. The prospects for building a harmonious and sustainable society on that basis are, to all intents and purposes, non-existent.
Our Report addresses a number of concerns, including the urgent case for reform of electoral law and our overwhelming need to become a digitally literate society. We must all become better equipped to understand the means by which we can be exploited, and the motives of those doing so. Misinformation can pervert common sense to the point at which it is easy to forget the fragile foundations upon which so many of our freedoms are built - until they become threatened. With so many of those freedoms curtailed in lockdown it seems possible that as we regain them, we may wish to contribute more fully towards reimagining and reshaping our future.
In our Report we make forty-five recommendations which, taken together, we believe could serve as a useful response to a whole series of concerns.
We urge the Government to implement them.
Our Committee met against a backdrop of troubling realities; the first being the power that has been ceded to a few unelected and unaccountable digital corporations; companies which between them control the flow of information that has such a profound influence on our daily lives. The second is an increasing abandonment of the seven Principles of Public Life adopted by a Parliament in crisis just twenty-five years ago. As a Committee we have tested our recommendations against these principles in the hope that those holding positions of power and influence in the public and private sectors might similarly respond.
Trust, be it in Government, the media, the giant digital platforms, or civil society generally, must be resurrected, and then reinforced every day.
I will forever be grateful to the Committee who, along with our extraordinarily committed officials, remained undistracted by a seemingly endless stream of breaking stories, each of which threatened at times to derail our considerations - from the proroguing of Parliament to the public arguments between the President of the United States and social media platforms.
The unanimous views of our Committee were recently summed up by Shoshana Zuboff, author of the 2018 book ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’:
“It’s down to lawmakers to protect democracy in an age of surveillance, whether it’s market driven or authoritarian driven. The sleeping giant of democracy is finally stirring, lawmakers are waking up, but they need to feel the public at their backs. We need a web that will offer the vision of a digital future that is compatible with democracy. That is the work of the next decade.”
We sincerely hope our Report will be a useful contribution to what is clearly an urgent epoch-shaping debate.
Chair of the Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies
1 ‘Inside China’s controversial mission to reinvent the internet’ Financial Times (27 March 2020): [accessed 8 June 2020]