Facebook has been unhelpful “to the point of obstruction”, say MPs

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez July 29, 2018
The Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee has been investigating Facebook and social media’s role in disinformation online - or ‘Fake News’ - but has struggled to get CEO Mark Zuckerberg to cooperate.

Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg may be becoming well-practised in his mea culpa, ‘lessons have been learned’ routine, but he’s not impressed UK legislators who have just published a withering condemnation of the company’s role in promoting Fake News.

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee of the UK Parliament has made multiple attempts to get the Facebook CEO to talk directly to its members as part of its inquiry into disinformation in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but to date the message back as been a simple ‘Zuck off!’.

Given that the Committee has voiced its frustration at this stance by threatening to subpoena Zuckerberg next time he sets foot on UK soil, there can’t have been many who expected Facebook not to be given a drubbing in the Committee’s resulting interim report. It doesn’t disappoint.

Basically the UK legislators tear into Facebook culture, finding that the company has been un-co-operative “to the point of obstruction” and shooting down Zuckerberg’s ‘tidying up our own mess’ party line:

Facebook has hampered our efforts to get information about their company throughout this inquiry.It is as if it thinks that the problem will go away if it does not share information about the problem, and reacts only when it is pressed.

And it states bluntly:

Facebook should not be in a position of marking its own homework.

Facebook comes in for particular opprobrium in the interim report:

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.

But that’s not looking likely if Facebook is left to its own devices, warns the Committee:

We undertook fifteen exchanges of correspondence with Facebook, and two oral evidence sessions, in an attempt to elicit some of the information that they held, including information regarding users’ data, foreign interference and details of the so-called ‘dark ads’ that had reached Facebook users.

Facebook consistently responded to questions by giving the minimal amount of information possible, and routinely failed to offer information relevant to the inquiry, unless it had been expressly asked for. It provided witnesses who have been unwilling or unable to give full answers to the Committee’s questions.

In a damning comment, the report states:

Tech companies are not passive platforms on which users input content; they reward what is most engaging, because engagement is part of their business model and their growth strategy. They have profited greatly by using this model. This manipulation of the sites by tech companies must be made more transparent.

Facebook has all of the information. Those outside of the company have none of it, unless Facebook chooses to release it. Facebook was reluctant to share information with the Committee, which does not bode well for future transparency.

A major problem, argue the UK legislators, is that Facebook may talk the talk, but there’s not so many signs of how that translates to effective action, citing the political situation in Burma as a case in point:

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...The activity of Facebook undermines international aid to Burma, including the UK Government’s work.

Facebook is releasing a product that is dangerous to consumers and deeply unethical. We urge the Government to demonstrate how seriously it takes Facebook’s apparent collusion in spreading disinformation in Burma, at the earliest opportunity. This is a further example of Facebook failing to take responsibility for the misuse of its platform.

Then there’s the question of alleged Russian interference in the Brexit referendum. Again Facebook is accused of being unhelpful and unwilling to open up:

Throughout this inquiry, from October 2017 to June 2018, we attempted to gain information from Facebook about the extent of Russian interference in UK political campaigns. Time and again, Facebook chose to avoid answering our written and oral questions, to the point of obfuscation.

Facebook finally agreed, in January 2018, to expand its US investigation into alleged Russian interference in the EU Referendum. However, it downplayed the extent of the problem, and told us that the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) had bought only three adverts for $0.97 in the days before the Brexit vote. This did not include unpaid posts, and Facebook did not broaden its investigation beyond those IRA ‘troll farms’ identified during the US presidential election investigation.

While this is an ongoing British inquiry, it has a wider reach. The Committee has been working with and sharing information with the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the US House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the European Parliament, and the Canadian Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy, and Ethics.

Certainly many of the recommendations and conclusions have applicability beyond the UK. For example, the Committee warns:

Electoral law... is not fit for purpose for the digital age, and needs to be amended to reflect new technologies.

It’s not just Facebook that comes in for a beating. Social media companies in general are hauled over the coals:

Within social media, there is little or no regulation. Hugely important and influential subjects that affect us—political opinions, mental health, advertising, data privacy are being raised, directly or indirectly, in these tech spaces. People’s behaviour is being modified and changed as a result of social media companies. There is currently no sign of this stopping.

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. However, they are also significantly different from the traditional model of a ‘publisher’, which commissions, pays for, edits and takes responsibility for the content it disseminates.

We recommend that a new category of tech company is formulated, which tightens tech companies’ liabilities, and which is not necessarily either a ‘platform’ or a ‘publisher’.

My take

Leaving Facebook to one side, one of the most welcome recommendations from the UK Committee is to try to wipe out the term Fake News - although clearly the current occupant of the Oval Office is hardly likely to help here. But the UK legislators make the very valid point that:

The term ‘Fake News’ is 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. We recommend that the Government rejects the term ‘Fake News’, and instead puts forward an agreed definition of the words ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’.

Very, very sensible. If anything can be done to stop the pathetic bleating of “Fake News” every time a politician is confronted with a bad news story, I’m all for that. It won’t work of course. So long as President Trump has a Twitter account to hand, Fake News is going nowhere.

As for Facebook, I think this report illustrates all too well why Zuckerberg is in no hurry to appear before it. After the show trial in Washington and the bureaucratic idiocy that let him wriggle free in Brussels, he’d have to expose himself to some proper forensic questioning in London instead of hiding behind his avatars.

This is an interim report, but already it’s obvious that the finished article is going to contain some very important recommendations that are both applicable specifically to the UK - such as beefing up funding for the Information Commissioner’s Officer - but also to the wider world. Taming Facebook isn’t something that can be achieved by one country alone.

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