The Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee have released a report that voices concerns over the amount of ‘fake news’ that people have to deal with and try and the struggle to identify what is ‘fake’ and what is real.
The report said the issue ‘threatens democracy’ and has called for tougher regulation across social networks. The concern, according to tory MP Damian Collins, is that the amount of disinformation on the internet is beginning to crowd out real news.
With regards to electoral adverts, the government has said it has plans to introduce a requirement for such adverts relating to elections to have a “digital imprint.” Meaning that all political communications carried online would need to clearly identify who they were published by.
The report comes in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal earlier this year, who along with social media company Facebook were investigated for the harvesting and use of personal data and whether this had any effect on influencing both the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election. Both firms denied any wrongdoing.
Businessman Arron Banks, chief backer of the unofficial Leave.EU campaign, donated millions of pounds to the campaign and was criticised for misleading the Commons committee about his business dealings with Russia and for failing to demonstrate the source of the money.
According to the report, the committee concluded that Arron Banks had misled them about his meetings with the Russian Embassy and had walked out of an evidence session to avoid scrutiny on the topic.
It said that it was “unclear” where he had obtained the money for his donation to the leave campaign, and he had failed to demonstrate that it came from within the UK.
Mr Banks “seemed to want to hide the extent of his contacts with Russia”, which had discussed potential gold and diamond deals with him, and his spokesman Andy Wigmore was “a self-confessed liar”, the committee said.
Mr Collins said: “If it turned out to be the case that he profited from these relationships with the Russian people he was meeting and discussing business deals with, and he used that money to invest in the Brexit campaign, then I think that would be a really serious matter.”
The ICO, Information Commissioner’s Office, is also investigating whether the Leave.EU campaign, which Mr Banks co-founded, misused customer data from his insurance company for political purposes.
Mr Banks has said that the funding for his donation came from his personal wealth and has described the information commissioner’s investigation as “a politically motivated attack”.
MPs also considered evidence from around the world of how elections could be manipulated and heard how Russian agencies worked to influence votes by running adverts on Facebook.
Mr Collins told the BBC this had happened without the knowledge of the social network.
“That’s why we feel that this is now a threat to our democracy,” he said.
“If these tools that are so powerful, that can reach millions and millions of people all around the world at the touch of a button, if they can be effectively used to spread disinformation without the source of that information ever being revealed, as appears to be the case here, then that is a threat we have to confront.”
He made clear the term “fake news” as used by figures like US President Donald Trump is different to the “concerted campaigns of disinformation” in which people or agencies deliberately spread false stories.
New laws must be introduced to clamp down on the “wild west” social media world, their report said.
A copy of the report was leaked last Friday by Dominic Cummings. Mr. Cummings was the director of the official Brexit Campaign, Vote Leave, and published the report on his own blog. He had been officially summoned to take part in the inquiry, to respond to allegations that were made against the Vote Leave campaign, but he refused. He called the report from the Commons Committee ‘Fake News.’
The report found that the use of social media and other forms of non-traditional communication was increasingly where people found their information and many trusted what they saw on social media because they trusted their friends and family, who may have inadvertently shared ‘fake news’ posts and articles.
The MPs said this is where malicious actors come in to try to influence the billions of people who use social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
Fake news can come in a wide spectrum of forms, from satire and parody to fabricated images or propaganda, the report said.
The report made a series of recommendations.
Electoral law needs to be updated to reflect the modern world.
A new tax on social networks could pay for digital literacy programmes in schools.
The Electoral Commission should set up a code for political advertising on social media.
There should be greater transparency around online advertising.
There should be a “digital Atlantic charter” to protect personal information and rights.
Mr Collins said: “Data crimes are real crimes, with real victims. This is a watershed moment in terms of people realising they themselves are the product, not just the user of a free service.
“Their rights over their data must be protected.”
The government issued a response saying: “The government takes disinformation very seriously, as with all types of online manipulation and internet harms.”
“That is why we have said we will come forward with new online safety laws to make sure the UK is the safest place to be online.”
“We note the committee’s report and will consider its final recommendations”
A government white paper is expected later this year on proposals to reform laws to make the internet and social media safer and The committee’s final report is expected before the end of the year.