Fake news, Facebook and a threat to democracy

Leave it out: Some of the Facebook adverts developed for anti-EU campaigns. Not all were used.

Is Facebook putting democracy at risk? That is the verdict of a committee of British MPs who spent 18 months investigating fake news, Brexit and social media advertising. Are they right?

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee seats just 11 MPs from across the UK’s political parties and meets in a nondescript room of Portcullis House in Westminster.

But over the last 18 months, its investigation into fake news has made headlines around the world, as the panel interviewed 61 witnesses, took 150 written statements, and heard evidence about elections which had been disrupted in five different continents.

This weekend it published its findings in its first “withering” interim report. The MPs slammed Facebook for a “continual reluctance” to tackle Russia’s election meddling; called for stricter regulation of social media companies; and described fake news as a threat to democracy around the world.

“Some of the most widely shared real news stories are getting less coverage than fake news stories,” the committee chair, Damian Collins, told the BBC yesterday. “Readers often find it difficult to distinguish whether a story is real or fake… that, I think, becomes a crisis for democracy.”

Perhaps even more troubling, says the report, is the “relentless targeting of hyper-partisan views, which play to the fears and the prejudices of people, in order to alter their voting plans.”

It pointed to evidence given by Christopher Wylie, a former employee of the political consultancy company Cambridge Analytica, which Collins said “blew the doors off” the investigation.

The whistleblower alleged that highly targeted adverts on Facebook had been used by the Vote Leave campaign and to try to influence the Brexit referendum. He claimed that it relied on data from a Facebook breach that had occurred two years earlier.

Facebook says it is working to improve its service. But the scandals surrounding it are taking their toll; last week, its value dropped by $123 billion overnight as share prices tanked.

Is Facebook really threatening democracy?

Face facts

Yes, and “it looks like the cops are finally arriving,” as one data expert put it to The Observer. Not only does Facebook play fast and loose with its users’ data, its algorithms are designed to manipulate emotions. Over half of people get their news from social media, but Facebook doesn’t do enough to protect them from misinformation. As a result, voters are being misled without even knowing it. That must stop.

Facebook is not all bad, argue others. It may have been misused in the past, but it does a lot of good for democracy too. Social media helps young people be more engaged in politics; it keeps users informed of real news as well as false stories; Facebook even encourages people to vote on election days. Of course it should sort out its problems — but the cure should not be worse than the disease.

You Decide

  1. Does fake news threaten democracy?
  2. Should governments do more to regulate Facebook and other social media companies?

Activities

  1. Without looking them up, write your own definitions for the following three terms: “democracy”, “fake news” and “misinformation”. Compare your answers with the class before researching an official definition.
  2. Create a poster that advises young people on how to protect themselves from fake news and misinformation online.

Some People Say...

“A lie told often enough becomes the truth.”

Vladimir Lenin

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
A full report will be published by the committee in autumn. The interim report found that “our democracy is at risk, and now is the time to act”. It recommended: a “legal liability” for tech companies to “act against harmful and illegal content”; auditing of tech companies, including their algorithms; banning micro-targeted political adverts; several criminal and governmental investigations; and that the term “fake news” should be dropped in favour of “misinformation” and “disinformation”.
What do we not know?
What the full report will conclude, or how many of these recommendations will be accepted by the government in the coming months. We also do not know whether political adverts online actually swayed the Brexit referendum or the US election of Donald Trump.

Word Watch

Portcullis House
The only parliamentary building in Westminster to have been built in the 21st century. It contains the offices for over 200 MPs, as well as several committee rooms.
Five different continents
North America, South America, Africa, Europe and Asia.
Cambridge Analytica
A British political consultancy company that was established as part of the SCL Group in 2013. It used data from 87 million Facebook profiles which had been harvested through a quiz, sometimes without users’ consent.
Vote Leave
The official campaign for Britain to leave the EU during the 2016 referendum. Earlier in July, the Electoral Commission found that Vote Leave broke campaign finance laws in the run-up to the vote. It made a donation to another leave campaign group, BeLeave, which meant that it exceeded its maximum campaign budget.
$123 billion
Facebook’s value dropped from $629.6 billion to $506.2 billion after reporting a slowdown in its earnings over the last three months.
Over half
According to a July 2017 report by YouGov, which surveyed 70,000 people in 36 countries.