Disinformation and ‘fake news’: The UK’s Interim Report is available

Disinformation and ‘fake news’: The UK’s Interim Report is available

fake news
One of the Vote Leave grossly misleading ‘dark ads’ submitted to the digital, culture, media and sport committee by Facebook as part of the committee’s inquiry into fake news. Photograph: Courtesy of DCMS Committee

The UK parliament has a Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee that has just published an Interim Report on Fake News. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first let’s start with a bit of background by Carole Cadwalladr (@carolecadwalla)who wrote a great description of who they are and what they have been doing. Last Saturday she wrote within an article titled “‘Plucky little panel’ that found the truth about fake news, Facebook and Brexit”  …

The doggedness of a Commons select committee has played a major role in one of the great political scandals of our time

…week by week, and witness by witness, it has made public an extraordinary and still unfolding story …

…It has heard from 61 witnesses, taken more than 150 written submissions and conducted 20 oral evidence sessions, including one in Washington, the first outside parliament. To watch its progress was to watch a true crime box-set happening in real time….

… Donald Trump campaign’s links to Russia. Britain had a cross-party group of 12 MPs: random amateurs with no expert training who stepped up and led an inquiry that has been public, open and asking more and more difficult questions. Crucially, it has refused to take no for an answer.

Today it publishes its first blockbuster 89-page report (another is due in the autumn), and it looks as if the actions of what the Washington Post calls the “plucky little panel” will come to be seen as a watershed moment in the history of Silicon Valley.

… I’ve been impressed, both by the format and the bipartisan approach and how far they’ve come in understanding tech and big data. They are more threatening to Facebook than almost any other body in the world. And that’s why Zuckerberg won’t come and give evidence….

…There is a golden thread that runs through the 89 pages of this interim report, and that is what Collins calls “Facebook’s complete lack of moral responsibility”. Its complete absence of “moral leadership”. The “disingenuous” responses from its executives. Its repeated refusal to “time and again… avoid answering questions to the point of obfuscation”. …

… One thing that Collins says has struck him is “just how many connections take you back to Russia….

The Conclusion of the Interim Report

You can find links to Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee committee publications on the UK Parliament website here. The specific Interim Report that was formally published on Sunday 29th July is here. (Yes it really is 89 pages).

What is perhaps of immediate interest can be found within the “Conclusions and Recommendations” section. I’ve pulled out a few snippets (quite a few, so you might want to go grab a coffee first) …

They comment upon the term “Fake News” and what that really means …

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.

They make recommendations regarding online content (and this is interesting because it would potentially impact tabloid online disinformation)…

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.

They take a clear stance that Facebook can’t continue to duck its responsibilities …

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.

Electoral Law in the UK is no longer fit for purpose …

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.

Legal teeth need to be sharpened …

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…

…Electoral Commission should have the ability to refer matters to the Crown Prosecution Service…

… 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….

Social Media need to be held to account …

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.

Facebook have refused to answer their questions. This committee will not accept “no” as an answer …

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.

There are recommendations regarding fake accounts …

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.

Real privacy is not the same as the illusion of privacy. The committee also recognised this reality …

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.

Burma – Facebook has a responsibility that they will not be permitted to duck …

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.

They have recommendations on what can be done …

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.

Cambridge Analytica was not a once only data failure …

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.

… and in that context they were lied to and they know it …

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.

Political campaigning needs to change …

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.

… 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….

Leave EU were not playing with a straight bat …

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.

This is the really juicy bit …

Arron Banks who bankrolled Leave UK gets a very special mention. This highlights the rather extensive Russian connection  (emphases mine)…

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.

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.

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.

About here is perhaps the right place to insert your stunned silence.

Tweets

The BBC being the BBC is still refusing to call a spade a spade. It has failed to hold the Vote Leave crooks to account and refuses to state the facts.

I’m not using the term “Crook” as a political opinion. It is a legal fact that Vote leave broke the law …

The EU will respond to this …

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