1.This Committee was asked by the House of Lords Liaison Committee to consider Democracy and Digital Technologies. To do so, we have taken a broad view of democracy. We do not believe that democracy is a single event that happens every few years.2 Whilst elections are a vital part of a modern, representative democracy, they are insufficient in themselves; a democracy is defined by its shared institutions and shared values.3 The shape of these institutions and values change over time and as the context in which we operate shifts. This is perhaps never more the case than at moments like the current COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, technology too changes over time, often rapidly, and this has an impact on our democracy.
2.Democracy is an enduring feature of British society, but it can be eroded unless it is upheld and protected by citizens, civil society, companies and elected representatives. It is vital for us to continually invest time and focus in defining and protecting democratic ideals. We must resist the emergence of undemocratic practices and institutions and strengthen public trust and confidence in democratic processes.
3.In effect these technologies are reshaping not only our private lives but also our public life and our democracy. People now have a printing press, a broadcast station and a place of assembly in their pockets.4 This gives them the opportunity to express themselves and challenge ideas in a way that was not possible even a decade ago. This has encroached on existing power structures in increasingly evident ways. Social media allows people to take part through tiny acts of participation that were never before possible.5 Previously, taking part in politics was the preserve of an active few who had the resources of time or money to lobby, join a political party or knock on doors during an election. Now more of the public can take part simply by liking a post, following a campaigner or sharing a video of a news item. More people now encounter political debate through social media than would have done so in the past.6 People who would not have previously engaged in the everyday discussion of democracy are now taking an active part. This increased participation, although it has empowered many, has, paradoxically, shifted power toward a very small group of new gatekeepers; the individuals who determine the ways in which the technology platforms operate. These individuals can, purposefully or not, change whose voice is heard. It has also introduced new opportunities for individuals and organisations with malign intentions to manipulate the flow of political debate.
The defining feature of platforms, as used in this Report, in the context of democracy and digital technology is that they intermediate between their customers and content that they do not create (and that they do not usually pay for either). This is achieved through indexing content that exists elsewhere on the internet, such as Google, or through user submitted content, such as Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. As a result, they often offer harmful content that can have a detrimental effect on individuals and society. This can be compounded by the business models of these platforms. The largest platforms in this space are all funded by advertising and are incentivised to increase user attention. Many of these platforms harvest users’ personal data to effectively algorithmically rank and recommend content to maintain user attention. This can incentivise an increased spread of harmful content as we discuss throughout this Report. Algorithmic ranking and recommending of content mean these platforms are making de facto editorial decisions and we consider them as such in this Report.
Neither advertising, nor algorithmic recommendation is a necessary condition for spreading harmful content. For example, WhatsApp features neither but still has been used to spread concerning content. Throughout this Report we refer to platforms, online platforms or technology platforms as ways to describe these intermediary services. These intermediaries are not necessarily bad. If platforms were to effectively abide by the norms of a democratic society through tackling harmful content rather than spreading it then they could play a powerful, constructive role in supporting democracy.
4.The rise of these platforms has not occurred in a vacuum. Even before the rise of social media our society was reshaping itself and what democracy means in our daily lives. There has been a long-term decline of social, cultural and political institutions which would have at one point been core arenas for democratic activity. The fall in membership in churches, trade unions, sporting associations, and local community organisations means that our democracy would look very different to how it looked 50 years ago with or without the internet. Power has dramatically shifted from civil society organisations to privately owned companies.
5.Focusing on democracy is particularly important given rapid changes in society brought about by technology. Developments in the communications environment have had a significant impact on the democratic landscape, including public debate, political learning and participation. Public debate has changed from being the reserve of a relatively small number of newspapers, television channels and radio stations, to a situation whereby millions of people across the UK are able to broadcast their thoughts to their fellow citizens. Within this landscape, private companies such as Facebook and Twitter have become major sites of public debate where we share news and opinions. In addition, Google has become a basic tool to find answers to all manner of questions and acquire new information. There are also new platforms for democratic engagement and activism online, and specialist tools have been crafted to help people shape the environments in which they live. The role these technologies play in our lives has been dramatically accelerated over the past decade and even more so by the COVID-19 crisis. As many of us have been forced to withdraw into our homes we have increasingly come to rely on these technology platforms to connect us with the rest of society.
Source: (1) Facebook, Facebook Reports First Quarter 2020 Results (April 2020): https://investor.fb.com/investor-news/press-release-details/2020/Facebook-Reports-First-Quarter-2020-Results/default.aspx , (2) Alexa, Site info for youtube.com (June 2020): https://www.alexa.com/siteinfo/youtube.com, (3) inernetlivestats, Google Search Statistics (June 2020): https://www.internetlivestats.com/google-search-statistics/, (4) Mention, 2018 Twitter Report, https://info.mention.com/hubfs/Twitter%20Engagement%20Report%202018%20%7C%20Mention.pdf, [accessed 2 June 2020]
6.During the COVID-19 crisis, technology has become our means of accessing health advice, the way we conduct business and the medium through which we organise politically. In this environment the spread of misinformation has become an even more critical issue as the wrong information could topple a government, bankrupt a business and is literally a matter of life and death. The effects of COVID-19 have shown the sharp end of this underlying societal shift.
7.This change in the way that politics happens and where power lies requires us to think deeply about how our parliamentary form of democracy works and how it can be improved. There is an urgent need to establish a vision of how technology platforms should function in our society. This is vital, because whilst it is easy to assume that we all share the same understanding of what democracy means and how technology should be used to promote these ideas, there are actually competing conceptions of what good practice looks like. Indeed, there are already signs that Moscow, Beijing and Silicon Valley have very different ideas for what should be done which are not compatible with how we would view democracy.7 To ensure we have the democracy we desire, we need to create a vision of how technology can support rather than undermine representative parliamentary democracy. This should help us push back against efforts from those in Moscow and Beijing who see an opportunity to shape debate and undermine democracy and against an indifferent Silicon Valley where support for parliamentary democracy is not a feature of their business plan.
8.Before that can happen though, there must be public trust in the democratic process and those who make decisions. The problem, put starkly, is that the public do not trust politicians. This is not new; according to the Ipsos Mori Veracity Index, at no point since 1983 have even a quarter of the public trusted politicians to tell the truth.8 Instead, the most trusted professions are people who have worked to understand their field and have professional standards that require them to act in the public’s interests. Nurses, doctors and teachers are the most trusted professions. They are more trusted now than when Ipsos Mori first began asking the question, with nine out of ten people trusting nurses to tell them the truth. This lack of trust in politicians leads to cynicism, with 56 per cent of the public saying that they tend to ignore what parties and politicians say because they know they cannot trust them.9 We are concerned that such distrust of politicians may extend to distrust of the democratic process itself.
9.This trust in authoritative sources is reflected in who people trust in a crisis. Research from the Reuters Institute found that the most trusted sources of news on the COVID-19 crisis were scientists, doctors and health experts, with 87 per cent saying they trusted them.10 Far fewer people trusted technology platforms to bring them accurate news. Only 31 per cent trusted search engines, 14 per cent trusted social media, 12 per cent trusted messaging apps and 11 per cent trusted video sites. This compares to 60 per cent who trusted established news organisations to give them accurate information.
10.There have been many attempts over the years to improve public trust in those who work on their behalf. In this Report, we sought to learn from the Nolan Principles of Public Life, which have, in the decades since they were established, set out non-partisan criteria for what we expect from individuals working in public life.11 We have looked at these principles and expanded them to help define what our democracy requires. For our democracy to flourish, we need informed citizens, accountability, transparency, inclusive public debate, free and fair elections, and an active citizenry. We have built our Report around these six principles and the role of technology in enabling them. There are further questions about the relative size and power of technology companies that have strong implications for democracy but have been beyond the scope we could cover in a year-long inquiry. We commend the work of the Von der Leyen administration at the European Commission which has been leading on this question.
11.Public debate should be between informed citizens. In Chapter 2, we discuss how we can ensure citizens are well informed by tackling misinformation and boosting the reach of good information, including the question of how to regulate political advertising, the role of fact checkers, how our public institutions can better inform the public and the importance of supporting public interest journalism.
12.Democracy requires that those who hold power must be accountable for that power. Currently online platforms have built up an alarming amount of power with very few means by which they can be held to account for the way they influence public debate. Digital technology will not deserve a future in our democratic society unless it can win people’s trust and acceptance.12 As a result, in Chapter 3 we look at what technology platforms’ responsibilities should be and how they can be better held to account for what they do. This includes the role of the Government’s Online Harms work and how we believe it can help to protect our democracy. We also look at ways for individuals to seek redress when something goes wrong online.
13.For the public to trust individuals with power there must be transparency. People must understand how platforms function in order to have faith that they are fair arbiters of democratic discussion. In Chapter 4 we consider the information which platforms should share with researchers, what platforms should share about the algorithms that govern them, and how open companies should be about the decision-making process regarding what can stay on their platforms.
14.We can also further improve our democracy by using technology specially designed to foster an inclusive debate. In Chapter 5, we therefore discuss the importance of using technology to enhance democracy in a responsible manner and the ways the Government can support this innovative sector.
15.The ultimate accountability mechanisms in a democracy are free and fair elections. We need our electoral law to be able to cope with digital campaigning, which has become one of the most important elements of our elections. In Chapter 6, we discuss the need for updating electoral law, the powers of the Electoral Commission, the case for greater transparency in political advertising through imprints and archives, and the need for digital campaigning to respect people’s data rights.
16.Democracy is enhanced through active citizens seeking to improve the society in which they live. In Chapter 7, we look at how education can empower citizens to make a difference to their lives in a digital world. We discuss how to create world class digital media literacy in the UK, the ways in which we can improve digital understanding right across the curriculum, and how online platforms can be designed to empower citizens to make decisions for themselves.
17.We were appointed on 13 June 2019 with the broad remit “to consider democracy and digital technologies”. We experienced numerous disruptions to our inquiry throughout its lifetime. On 28 August 2019, the Prime Minister announced that Parliament would be prorogued in September. Parliament was suspended on 10 September and was due to return on 14 October 2019. On 24 September, the prorogation was deemed null and of no legal effect by the Supreme Court and Parliament resumed the next day. Nevertheless, the impact was that we lost valuable weeks in which we could have continued our inquiry. Then, on 31 October, Royal Assent was given to the Early Parliamentary General Election Act 2019 and a General Election was held on 12 December. Parliament, and therefore this Committee, was dissolved on 6 November. Our Committee and its membership had to be re-established in the new Parliament. We are grateful to the Senior Deputy Speaker for extending our reporting deadline from 31 March to 23 June 2020, but again we lost some momentum and weeks in which we could have taken evidence. Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic presented some disruption as Parliament went into recess early and we were instructed to work from home. Our evidence session with Ministers took place virtually, and this Report was similarly agreed virtually. Despite these interruptions, we are confident that the quality of our work has not been adversely affected. COVID-19 has in fact brought the importance of the issues raised in our Report to prominence in ways that we could not have possibly foreseen.
18.Another disruption that we feel it necessary to mention was that the two biggest political parties refused to give evidence to us in person. We approached the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties to give evidence to us on 25 February to discuss their use of digital technologies in campaigning, amongst other issues. The Conservative Party refused to give evidence in person but offered to give written evidence. The Labour Party initially offered to send a representative, but pulled out the day before the evidence session, meaning it had to be cancelled. Only the Liberal Democrats were willing to send a representative. We then asked the parties for written evidence in response to the questions we were due to ask them. This was duly provided. We were disappointed that we could not hear from the parties in person, as we heard numerous times that political parties must be more transparent to increase public trust in the democratic system. We hope that the parties share our goal of resurrecting public trust in democracy; their conduct would imply otherwise.
19.In reply to our call for written evidence, we received 83 submissions. We heard oral evidence from 66 witnesses, and from some of them we received supplementary written evidence. The witnesses are listed in Appendix 2. We are most grateful to all of those who sent us their ideas or spoke to us in person. Their evidence was invaluable and forms the basis of our work. We are likewise deeply grateful to the pupils from Oasis Media Academy in Salford and Queen Elizabeth’s School in Devon, and the six teachers who participated in our digital surgeries, who described their experience of both teaching and learning about digital media literacy. We are especially grateful to Harriet Andrews from The Politics Project for coordinating these sessions. We tender our thanks to Ravi Naik, Legal Director at AWO and Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, who provided legal advice to the Committee and diligently reviewed drafts of this Report. Throughout the course of our inquiry, we have been extremely fortunate to have had Dr Kate Dommett, Senior Lecturer in the Public Understanding of Politics and Director of the Crick Centre at the University of Sheffield, as our specialist adviser. We offer her our thanks for her invaluable expert advice and thoughtful input.
2 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (Penguin, translation published 1968) p 141
3 Bernard Crick, Democracy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)
8 Ipsos Mori, ‘Ipsos Mori Veracity Index 2019’ (November 2019): https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/news/documents/2019–11/trust-in-professions-veracity-index-2019-slides.pdf [accessed 13 May 2020]
9 Full Fact, Research into public views on truth and untruth in the 2019 General Election: Final Report (December 2019): https://fullfact.org/media/uploads/ff_election_research_report_final_version_16.12.19.pdf [accessed 13 May 2020]
10 Reuters Institute, ‘Navigating the ‘infodemic’: how people in six countries access and rate news and information about coronavirus’ (April 2020): https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/infodemic-how-people-six-countries-access-and-rate-news-and-information-about-coronavirus [accessed 13 May 2020]
11 Committee on Standards in Public Life, ‘The 7 principles of public life’ (May 1995): https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-7-principles-of-public-life [accessed 13 May 2020]
12 Margrethe Vestager, Shaping a digital future for Europe (February 2020): https://ec.europa.eu/commission/commissioners/2019–2024/vestager/announcements/shaping-digital-future-europe_en [accessed 26 May 2020]?