Disinformation poses ‘existential threat’ to democracy, parliamentary committee warns

Report from crossbench group of peers accuses government of failing to deal with a growing problem

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A cross-party group of peers have warned that online disinformation poses an “existential threat” to democracy as they accused the government of failing to “get a grip” on the spread of fake news.

In a major new report, the Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee urged ministers to act “without delay” to toughen up electoral laws and establish a new regulatory body to monitor social media firms in a bid to tackle the problem.

The study comes amid growing fears over the spread of fake news and disinformation, which the group warned was having an “absolutely corrosive” impact on democracy.

Hitting out at the “unchecked power” of digital firms such as Google and Facebook, the report called for communications regulator, Ofcom, to receive new powers to fine companies up to 4% of their global turnover if they fail to tackle fake news on their platforms, with the worst offenders blocked from operating in the UK.

Part of that work, the group said, would mean examining so-called ‘black box’ algorithms to ensure social media firms were not promoting harmful or untrue information to users.

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And the report added that ministers should begin work on ensuring school pupils are given better education on “digital literacy” to provide them with a better understanding of how to identify fake news online.

Committee chair Lord Puttnam said the plans should be brought in “immediately” as part of the government’s Online Harms Bill to stop social media firms from “hiding behind” practical concerns about limiting free speech.

Politics and porkies
Meanwhile, the report called for a major overhaul of political advertising rules to bring them into line with other commercial advertising, including requirements for “truth and accuracy”.

And they urged political parties to work alongside the Advertising Standards Agency to develop a code of conduct that would ban “fundamentally inaccurate” messaging during elections.

Alongside the advertising code, the committee said new regulations should be brought in to force all political campaigners to include an ‘imprint’ setting out the details of who has paid for digital ads, with the Electoral Commission able to impose fines of up to £500,000 on those who fail to comply.

Speaking to PublicTehcnology sister publication PoliticsHome, Lord Puttnam said he hoped the report would “embarass” ministers into pushing forward with the changes.

“None of our recommendations are overtly political,” he said. “I’d like to think the government would look at our report and think, this is a bit embarassing. We can’t just ignore this.”

And he hit out at both Labour and the Conservatives for “refusing” to provide evidence to the Committee in person, saying that “even when we did get the written evidence there was some porkies”.

“They ought to be very, very embarrassed,” he added.

He added: “We have set out a programme for change that, taken as a whole, can allow our democratic institutions to wrestle power back from unaccountable corporations and begin the slow process of restoring trust. Technology is not a force of nature and can be harnessed for the public good. The time to do so is now.”

Responding to the report, Louise Edwards, Director of Regulation at the Electoral Commission said the recommendations would help “maintain public trust” in online campaigning.

“Despite the rapidly expanding use of digital tools in political campaigning, the regulatory regime has not changed to keep pace,” she said. “Making clear who is behind digital campaigns, providing more information on the money being spent on online advertising, and increasing the sanctions for those breaking the rules are sensible and widely-supported proposals.”


Sam Trendall

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