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. But over the last 18 months, its investigation into fake news has made headlines around the world.

This weekend it published its findings in its first “withering” interim report. The MPs slammed Facebook and called fake news a threat to democracy.

“Readers often find it difficult to distinguish whether a story is real or fake,” the committee chair, Damian Collins, told the BBC yesterday. “That, I think, becomes a crisis for democracy.”

Perhaps even more troubling, says the report, are the online political adverts 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.

In March, he claimed that targeted adverts on Facebook had been used by the Vote Leave campaign and to try to influence the EU referendum. He said that it relied on data from a Facebook breach that had occurred two years earlier.

Facebook says it is working to improve its service.

Is the company a threat to democracy?

Face facts

Yes, say some. Facebook plays fast and loose with its users’ data and is designed to manipulate their emotions. Over half of people get their news from social media, but Facebook does not 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 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. The cure for its problems should not be worse than the disease.

You Decide

  1. Does fake news threaten democracy?

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.

Some People Say...

“A lie told often enough becomes the truth.”

Vladimir Lenin

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The report found that “our democracy is at risk, and now is the time to act”. It recommended stricter rules for tech companies; several criminal and governmental investigations; and that the term “fake news” should be dropped.
What do we not know?
What the full report will conclude when it is published in autumn, or how many of these recommendations will be accepted by the government.

Word Watch

Cambridge Analytica
A British political consultancy company that was established in 2013. It used data from 87 million Facebook profiles which had been harvested through a quiz, sometimes without 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.
Over half
According to a July 2017 report by YouGov, which surveyed 70,000 people in 36 countries.

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