At the end of this summer, the UK House of Commons DCMS Select Committee on Fake News published an interim report. It was a wide-ranging piece of work written in the midst of an equally broad investigation that produced headlines about Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, Arron Banks, and Russia. The report covered the definition of disinformation, the role of tech companies, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica allegations, Political campaigning, Russian influence on elections, and digital literacy.
MP Damian Collins’ Committee made 53 recommendations to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Department. The Government, as it is obliged to do, responded to the recommendations with a report published last month, however brief.
Almost immediately, Committee members expressed their disappointment. Just three of the 53 Committee recommendations were accepted. Four were rejected outright. Nine recommendations were ignored. And in testimony to the Committee, the newly-appointed DCMS Department Secretary Jeremy Wright made the case that most of the Committee recommendations ask that matters be considered, and so the Government promised they would, indeed, eventually, consider them.
Funny as that sounds, the Committee’s report is no laughing matter. It warns of a “crisis in our democracy” created by disinformation campaigns and hate messaging, and expresses deep fears over Russian interference in UK and other Western elections.
I’m the Specialist Advisor to the Committee, and I, too, was disappointed by the Government’s response, especially given the timing. Just this week Leave-financier Arron Banks has been referred to the National Crime Agency by the Electoral Commission - something the Committee recommended, yet the Government refused to respond to. The Daily Mail is reporting that Theresa May, as Home Secretary, stepped in to stop an investigation of Banks during the Brexit Referendum campaign. OFCOM in testimony this week continues to refuse to pull the UK license of Russia Today — aka RT — a Kremlin-financed propaganda broadcast network. And just yesterday, the founder and editor of Far Right Watch has claimed confirmation that Nigel Farage is being actively investigated by the FBI. What a week.
There are several points in the Government’s response I find particularly disappointing, and they are worth exploring.
A few of these can be summed up succinctly. The Government is dragging its feet while Democracy burns, deflecting calls for criminal investigations, claiming they’ve found no “successful use of disinformation”, and kicking the can down the road until after Brexit. Most of the Government’s response has simply flagged a number of ongoing consultations and reviews — the “Protecting the Debate: Intimidating, Influence and Information” consultation, for example — and promising to consider them at a future date.
These issues demand a greater sense of urgency from all parties. Given the broad assaults on democracy across Western Europe and North America, by both foreign and domestic actors, I believe the damage being done will take decades to repair. How many tainted election cycles will pass before the Government mounts an effective strategy to counter assaults on our Western pluralistic consensus?
Further, the Government’s response liberally quotes a line that has been trotted out over the past six months — they’ve observed no “evidence of the successful use of disinformation by foreign actors, including Russia, to influence UK democratic processes”. The success of these operations is beside the point. Any attempts by foreign and malign actors to influence UK democratic processes is hostile by nature, and its success or failure does not change this.
If you try to kill your neighbour, but you weren’t quite up to the task, it’s still attempted murder.
Finally, in the face of the Government’s pale response to the Interim Report, it’s worth noting a recent motion for a resolution passed by an EU body — the EU Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs. They’ve produced a bold document, calling for criminal investigations, sweeping data legislation reforms, and perhaps most important, a full data audit of Facebook and the big social media networks. I agree with these calls; if you’re planning to regulate the social networks — and believe me, regulation is coming — it’s good to start with understanding the ground upon which you stand.
The problems facing democracy are acute. And it is clear there are several sides in this argument. On one of those sides stands democracy and the civil society; on the other is the fracturing of our democratic culture through malign interference from Russia. Solving this will require a team effort — from Europe and America, from the left and the right, and from the Government and Parliament. All politics aside, it is critical for each one of us to recognise the current crisis as precisely that — a crisis of Democracy — and to make it unambiguously clear which team we’re actually on.
Dr Charles Kriel is Corsham Institute’s Data, Ethics and Trust Research Fellow, and Specialist Advisor to the DCMS Select Committee on Fake News and Disinformation.