Ministers engage with big tech to tackle threat to democracy

The home secretary is currently visiting Silicon Valley to talk to Apple, Google and Meta, while the tech minister has stressed the importance of government regularly convening social media firms

The home secretary will this week meet with technology giants in the US to discuss how the UK government and tech players can work together to tackle a number of challenges facing democracies in the digital age.

James Cleverly is visiting the US and will meet leaders from firms including Apple, Google, and Meta in Silicon Valley. He will also travel to New York where it is expected he will meet officials from X, formerly Twitter.

A general election is expected in the UK by the end of the year, and more people across the world will vote in elections in 2024 than in any other year in history – including in the US presidential election in November. MPs and experts have therefore warned that this year could be an “acid test” for whether democracies can protect political debate and free speech from the dangers of misinformation and disinformation.

A government source told PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome that the home secretary will talk to the firms to make sure the digital sphere has “safeguards against attempts at malign influence in the democratic process”.

Ahead of the Global Fraud Summit being held in London on 11-12 March, Cleverly is also going to discuss with the companies what measures they are taking to tackle digital fraud. The UK has been working with the UN on bringing these firms on board for the Global Digital Compact, an initiative to try to ensure that digital technologies are used responsibly for the public’s benefit.

PoliticsHome understands that the home secretary will hold platform-specific talks with firms on how to work together to address areas such as digital exploitation and crime.

“The challenges for both are not going to disappear or be ignorable,” a government source said.

In the UK, the government is also reconvening social media companies in an attempt to tackle misinformation ahead of the next general election, as the technology minister insists it will only be possible to do “everything we can” to protect democracy with the cooperation of the biggest online platforms.

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Conservative MP Saqib Bhatti was recently appointed as minister for tech and the digital economy, a role which sits within the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. Speaking to PublicTechnology sister publication The House, he defined his job as ensuring government has “got it right” in its approach to five critical technologies: artificial intelligence; engineering biology; future telecommunications; semiconductors; and quantum technologies.

Perhaps the most pressing item on DSIT’s to-do list though is leading the charge against misinformation and disinformation. Bhatti insisted the UK government will do “everything we can” to protect democracy, but explains this will only be achievable with the co-operation of the top social media platforms.

In October, science, innovation and technology secretary Michelle Donelan hosted a roundtable with the UK leaders of social media companies Google, Meta, X, TikTok and Snapchat to discuss the spread of antisemitism, violent content, and misinformation following the Hamas attack on Israel. Bhatti told The House that this kind of intervention may be needed again in the context of election misinformation.

“I’m not afraid to reconvene them to make sure we are on the front foot on these issues, especially with an election around the corner,” he said.

Bhatti is part of the Defending Democracy Taskforce set up in 2022 and now chaired by security minister, Tom Tugendhat. DSIT also holds responsibility for the National Security Online Information Team, formerly known as the Counter-Disinformation Unit and renamed in order to focus primarily on misinformation spread by foreign states.

“There’s a national security element to this,” Bhatti confirmed. “It is my belief this is going to be a conversation where, if misinformation occurs, we are going to have to have lines of communication across the piece… What that looks like, of course, we’ll be talking about and deciding how to publicise as appropriate.”

For now, Bhatti is optimistic: “I’m confident we can come up with a mechanism to help mitigate the risk of misinformation in elections. I think everyone will have a role to play in that.”

According to the tech minister, “everyone” includes the platforms which themselves play host to much of the most damaging misinformation and disinformation”.

“I think social media companies and businesses as a whole have a responsibility to be a force for good in society,” he said. “They don’t always have to wait for government to knock on the door and say ‘this is what you have to do’; I think they can do the right thing without us having to do that.”

Versions of this story originally appeared on PublicTechnology sister publications PoliticsHome and The House

Zoe Crowther

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