The data industry and social media firms should face tougher regulation to combat a growing crisis of data manipulation and fake news, which is threatening to be a major threat to the democratic process.
So says a damning report into fake news, carried out by the Commons select committee for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport which claims that there is a “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”.
The report, published over the weekend, adds to the growing calls for tougher government regulation of social media companies. It accuses them of profiting from misleading material and raises concerns about Russian involvement in British politics.
The DCMS committee has spent 18 months conducting a series of high-profile and evidence sessions in which the focus has shifted from disinformation to the influence of social networks, in particular Facebook, and the use of targeted ads during the Brexit Referendum.
Among other findings in its wide-ranging report, the committee recommends that 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.
It also insists that social media networks should be legally responsible for harmful and illegal content on their platforms and that British regulators should undertake an audit of the entire social media advertising industry.
Facebook has been described in the report as having “serious failings” in its operations that allowed its data to be manipulated in order to spread misinformation and disinformation.
However, Facebook claims that it already complies with many of the proposed regulations and is planning to authenticate and label political ads in the UK and create an archive of those ads that anyone can search.
Committee chair Damien Collins also called for tech giants to pay more than others to the UK Information Commissioner’s Office.
He said: “Social media giants have grown rapidly in the Wild West culture of the Internet. Their mantra has been to move fast and break things, as they deliver massive changes to the way we find, consume and even make news and entertainment. Yet in this process they are putting at risk one of the most important treasures of our society: our democracy itself.
“Facebook gathers data about everything we do on their website, and track us when we are elsewhere on the Internet. And Facebook has failed to keep this data safe. They have made it far too easy for political consultancies, such as the disgraced Cambridge Analytica, to scrape this data for their campaigns.
“The big tech firms should help the costs of the Information Commissioner’s Office, which is responsible for enforcing our data protection laws. They should also contribute through a levy to fund more media literacy programmes in schools, something they have started to do but could easily afford to support far more.
“Technology is changing the world fast. We must act now to keep up and protect democracy.”
Earlier this month, the ICO revealed it is investigating many of the UK’s leading data companies, including CACI, Experian, Equifax, TransUnion (formerly Callcredit) and Data8, as part of its ongoing probe into the use of personal data for political advertising, which has already put Emma’s Diary in the dock.
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