Bland Cricket: UK and EU Initiatives on Fake News Fall Short

Clear evidence has been presented to the UK government that Facebook and Twitter have been used to spread fake news created by fake users. The effects are toxic – sometimes deadly.

Meanwhile MEPs have been in Silicon Valley receiving reassurances and support for digital media literacy initiatives to immunise internet users against fake news.

Evidence presented to the UK Media Select committee shows the massacre of hundreds of Rohingya Muslims in Burma (Myanmar) is directly linked to Facebook’s policy of giving “Free Basics” to Burmese people to enable them to get online for the first time. They get basic internet with access to a limited number of websites and apps – including Facebook. MPs on the Media Select Committee heard testimony explaining how the social media platform spread untrue statements about Rohingya and whipped up religious hatred in the comments under fake posts. The Committee’s Interim Report urges the UK government to publicly condemn Facebook for allowing these interventions. It points out that Britain’s aid programme to the country, which has just emerged from years of isolation under a military dictatorship, has been undermined by the killings of Rohingya. However the government response, published on 22. October 2018 with replies to all 38 of the Committee’s recommendations is non-committal.

Twitter’s role in spreading anti-Muslim hate and threats has emerged from the think tank Demos, which analysed a dataset of tweets from the year October 2017 to 2018. It tracks the emergence of fake accounts or bots, believed to have been created by Russian state actors at the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-backed “troll factory” in St Petersburg.

Bots Under the Radar Playbook

At first the bots operate ‘under the radar’, attracting almost no attention in terms of re-tweets or replies. Then they start to tweet about fitness and diets – popular themes that are not directly connected with politics or religion. Next the fake account holders start to include a large number of names and Twitter handles in their tweets to make it look as though they have many online friends and followers. Then at times of heightened tension between religious communities, for example after the terrorist outrages at London Bridge, Manchester Arena and Westminster, the fake accounts become very active and achieve thousands of re-tweets.

Demos concludes from its study that the fake accounts originate in Russia. It considers the possibility that their real target is the US audience, since the number of tweets referring to specifically British events, such as the Brexit referendum, is relatively small. Once again after the Brexit vote the fake users’ comments are anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic in tone and content.

Even more threatening for the democratic discourse in Great Britain is the role played by Facebook and Cambridge Analytica in collecting personal data and micro-targeting voters in the 2016 United States presidential election and the Brexit referendum. MPs on the Select Committee note that in the United States the Robert Mueller inquiry has been pro-active in examining and punishing these distortions to the democratic process. It calls on the UK government to engage with Facebook, restrict microtargeting, demand full transparency of political advertising online and enforce the election spending rules.

In the bland manner of the English Civil Service, the responses all deflect the MPs’ demands – like a cricketer who whacks each successive ball into a different part of the field, or over the fence into the long grass.

The government replies that it must not pre-empt the deliberations or duplicate the activities of:

  • The Electoral Commission,
  • Committee on Standards in Public Life,
  • National Crime Agency,
  • Helsinki Centre for Hybrid Threats,
  • White Paper on Online Harms,
  • Cairncross Review of the sustainability of quality journalism,
  • Work of the enhanced Office of the Information Commissioner (ICO),
  • Defence, Science and Technology Lab,
  • Digital Charter,
  • Consultation on Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence and Information,
  • The planned UK Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation,
  • Freedom Online Coalition of 30 national governments,
  • “Any future Industry Code of Ethics”,
  • Bringing media literacy education into the curriculum for state schools

In addition, MPs are assured that the UK government “regularly engages with Facebook”.

No New Legal Category for Platforms

Government does not accept the MPs’ recommendation that a new category of “tech companies” should be created in relation to regulations on tax, competition, freedom of expression and data protection. This proposal aims to get around the vexed question of whether Google, Facebook, Amazon et al are platforms or publishers. Such a new classification would oblige them to act ethically by taking responsibility for the role they play – irrespective of whether or not the laws governing media outlets should apply to the tech companies.

In response, the UK government warns that any new legal position must not damage the UK’s own ‘vibrant’ tech industry. And it hides behind the current EU definitions as set out in the eCommerce Directive “mere conduit”, “cache” and “host”. It notes that most tech companies are treated as “hosts” which means they are not liable for abuses committed on their online platforms if they “act expeditiously” to remove harmful content when they become aware of it.

At the EU Commission, months of fractious meetings by the High Level Expert Group (HLEG) on Disinformation (they reject the term ‘fake news’) have resulted in recommendations. Cricket is not played much in Brussels, but the tenor of EU findings is the same as in Britain: bland and uncontroversial, emphasising quality journalism and media information literacy.

But not all members of the HLEG were happy with that. Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a respected civil society group that has advocated for press freedom for over 30 years, insisted its dissenting statement was included in the final report. It expresses concern that the EU commission is too soft on the tech companies, distorts priorities and threatens regulation ( or “self regulation” that could damage media freedom.

“The main leverage to limit the distribution and monetisation of falsehoods, propaganda and disinformation rests with platforms in their exclusive role as information intermediaries” says the RSF minority report.

However those intermediaries: Facebook, Twitter, Google and Mozilla were also represented on the High Level Expert Group, vastly outnumbering RSF’s lone voice. So it is hardly surprising that they did not press for tougher regulations and fines on themselves, or a new definition of their status.

Side-stepping the Issue

Instead they emphasis the large financial contribution they are making to numerous initiatives across Europe. Google’s Digital News Initiative, the Mozilla information Trust Initiative, Facebook’s International Fact checking Network, Twitter’s #factchecking hashtag, Facebook’s “about this website” popup information service… there are numerous ways in which the tech companies are trying to prove their corporate social responsibility and convince policy makers that new laws are not required.

Meanwhile, Facebook is collaborating with an NGO – Correktiv! – in order to better police the content which may be culturally specific and have hidden meanings.

 The Hoaxmap

Some Correktiv! journalists also work on a separate project, the hoaxmap.  The map plots the geo-location of false news stories, mainly reports claiming that immigrants and asylum seekers are committing crimes. The Hoaxmap displays the true facts behind each rumoured crime – including a small minority that are true.

Fake news circulating in social media often produces violent reactions in Germany. Racist attacks, arson at asylum reception centres, mass ‘funeral marches’ by neo-Nazis and right-populists and aggression against journalists, have become commonplace. They are usually opposed by even greater counter-demonstrations, and tightly controlled by hundreds of police in riot gear, mounted on horses, driving water cannons or armed with tear gas. The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) has its own map of truth. It plots and verifies attacks against journalists arising from the right-populist attitude that the media are “liars” who spread “fake news”.

ECPMF Founder and  Editor of Special Projects at Germany’s Stern magazine, Hans-Ulrich Jörges, commented at a public meeting on 29. October that these days Russia does not need to send in the tanks – the online attack is achieved with just a click. He cited the case of “Lisa” a teenage girl in Berlin who was falsely reported as a rape victim, as an example of Russian interference in Germany’s social media.  Jörges insisted that mainstream journalism is capable of re-building trust without any new laws. “We just have to do our jobs and remain independent” he said. And he admitted that he himself does not take part in social networks “I don’t want to waste my time with this wave of hatred”.

The Power of Independence

Remaining independent in this atmosphere presents challenges. One of Europe’s new media literacy programmes, the Lie Detectors, has turned down offers of funding from Google and other tech companies.

Founder Juliane von Reppert Bismarck explains: “We get our funding from a wonderful organisation called the Woods Foundation in the US which normally deals with land conservation”.

She insists she would not compromise the project’s independence by accepting grants from Big Tech. It operates by training journalists to present fact-checking sessions in their local primary and secondary schools in Germany and Belgium. Reppert Bismarck admits that a Lie Detector lesson is only a tiny pin-prick in the great scheme of information overload. Yet she hopes it will provide a sort of “immunisation”.

”We can’t beat disinformation. There are too many commercial and political gains to be made from circulating wild conspiracy theories, blatant lies and cleverly splicing truth and fiction. We need to take the thorn out of it. There were always wild stories – alien landings in Utah and God knows what! We need to be able to just acknowledge that stuff as entertainment and then leave it there”.

She emphasises that “pre-bunking” is more effective in combating false assertions than de-bunking, because falsehoods presented as facts are often received as facts – especially by adults who may lack the curiosity of the younger generation.

Indeed, new research at the US Pew Research Centre indicates that young Americans aged 16-49 are significantly better at telling facts from opinion and recognising truth from fiction than the over-50s. And psychologists at the University of Western Australia have found that over the age of 65 people are far more likely to continue to believe a myth – even after they have been told that it is untrue. Both groups of researchers find that repetition reinforces trust and belief.

So the viral messages that appear online feed the human tendency to believe what we want to believe and to belong to a group of fellow believers – as well as driving the business model for tech companies that rely on millions of clicks to support their advertising revenue.

What will this mean as the next round of elections gets underway, with the European Parliament election in the spring of 2019 ? Studies in both the US and France indicate that people will still vote for their original choice – even when fact-checking proves that their statements are not true.

Even without troll factories and hostile state actors, it’s a vicious circle.

However, the furore caused by the Mueller inquiry’s revelations about fake news from Russia did at least provoke a bigger turnout than usual in this year’s mid-terms.

If even millennial popstar Taylor Swift has noticed that an election is going on, there may still be hope for democracy. Swift has declared her support for the Democrats and urged her millions of Twitter followers to go and vote in the midterms with the words “Don’t sit this one out”. Perhaps pop music will save democracy? After all, the lyrics don’t have to be true…

Footnote: On Dec 6th, Lie Detectors – mentioned in this story – was awarded the 2018 EU Digital Skills Award

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