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Democracy risks due to fake news and data misuse, MPs say

Written by  Jul 27, 2018

Democracy is at risk unless the government and regulators take urgent action to combat a growing crisis of data manipulation, disinformation and so-called fake news, a parliamentary committee is expected to say.

The digital, culture, media, and sport (DCMS) committee has spent 18 months conducting a series of high-profile and often cantankerous evidence sessions in which the focus has shifted from disinformation to the influence of social networks, in particular Facebook, and the use of targeted adverts during the Brexit referendum.

In a version of the report leaked by the former Vote Leave campaign strategist Dominic Cummings before its official publication on Sunday, MPs say that the “relentless targeting of hyper-partisan views, which play to the fears and prejudices of people, in order to influence their voting plans and their behaviour” posed a greater threat to democracy than more familiar forms of so-called fake news, raising particular concerns about the way online data could be manipulated to impact elections.

Among other findings in its wide-ranging report, the committee is expected to recommend:

  • All online political campaign material should include information on the organisation that published it, and who paid for it, including the establishment of a public register for political advertising.
  • The Electoral Commission should be given the power to impose substantially higher fines than the existing £20,000 for breaches of electoral law.
  • Social networks should be be legally responsible for harmful and illegal content on their platforms.
  • British regulators should undertake an audit of the entire social media advertising industry.
  • The imposition of a limit on how much an individual can give to a political campaign, following Arron Banks’ substantial funding of the pro-Brexit Leave.EU group.
  • British police should investigate the overseas activities of SCL Group, the defunct sister company of Cambridge Analytica.

The MPs also raised concerns about foreign funding of Brexit campaign groups, saying they remained unconvinced about the source of some of the money spent by the leave side.

“Arron Banks is believed to have donated £8.4m to the leave campaign, the largest political donation in British politics, but it is unclear from where he obtained that amount of money,” the MPs concluded. “He failed to satisfy us that his own donations had, in fact, come from sources within the UK.”

Andy Wigmore, Banks’ right-hand-man - who the report described as an unreliable witness who had misled the committee - commented: “They would say that wouldn’t they.”

The interim report, which will precede a lengthier publication due in the autumn, is due to be published on Sunday. However, Vote Leave’s Cummings published a copy in a post on his personal blog, saying that it had been leaked to him.

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Cummings, who is facing censure from parliament after he refused a formal summons to attend one of the committee’s hearings, said the report “knowingly/incompetently makes false claims” and insisted the report was littered with “errors and misunderstandings about the legal framework for elections”. 

He also pledged that if anti-Brexit campaigners were successful in holding a second referendum then a new incarnation of Vote Leave would “win the referendum and destroy the strategic foundations of both main parties” by turning itself into a new political party that would take on both Labour and the Conservatives.

The DCMS committee report is based on 20 oral evidence sessions, during which 3,500 questions were asked of 61 witnesses, and included a trip to Washington DC. The committee also received over 150 written submissions and numerous pieces of background evidence.

The committee also concluded that the term “fake news” should not be used in future proceedings, saying it was “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,” the MPs said. “We recommend that the government rejects the term ‘fake news’, and instead puts forward an agreed definition of the words ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’.”

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