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Protecting democracy from the poison of 'fake news' Jo Stevens, MP for Cardiff Central, gives her view on the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport committee's'fake news'report which is due out today... Jv Cn.

Byline: Jo Stevens

THE election of Donald Trump as US President has led to a reevaluation of many previously accepted norms.

It is in the media sphere that he has made the biggest and most pernicious impact.

His hectoring use of social media, and repeated cries of "fake news" to browbeat any critic, has normalised not only online bullying, but the very notion of facts as inviolable truths.

It has been against this background that the UK Parliament's Digital Culture Media & Sport Select Committee - a cross-party committee on which I sit - has spent the past 18 months on an inquiry into disinformation and "fake news"; its impact on privacy, on citizens and on the democratic institutions and processes on which our country rests. The scope and reach of the problems were astonishing, and blew straight from the White House in Washington right to the door of the Senedd.

At the heart lie the monopolistic and unregulated tech companies, Facebook and Google chief among them. Together, they have been been largely untouched by regulation where it exists, and immune to sanction due to their astonishing size and vast financial heft. It is in this online free-for-all that they have grown and developed; accordingly, their ethics and business practices reflect a lifetime of operating in a virtual Wild West. Crucially, the lack of sanctions has made them them take ever greater risks, while those who head up the companies continue to behave with impunity and arrogance.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's completely contemptuous response when confronted with his company's actions, not least in his shoddy refusal to attend to give evidence to our committee. Throughout, Facebook has dissembled, misled and obfuscated, behind executives with socially-conscious sounding titles, backed up by lawyers and policy and public affairs schmoozers like former Lib Dem leader Sir Nick Clegg, because they continue to hold all the power. Viewing themselves as untouchable, and self-appointed arbiters of right and wrong, I believe they only act when they are exposed. They have repeatedly demonstrated they cannot be trusted on privacy of our data, because their whole business model is based on collecting more and more of our personal data and using it to sell advertising.

Among the many widespread practices our committee uncovered, it is the role of social media companies in targeting disinformation dressed up as "news" that has been the most concerning; the orchestrated manner in which this was ramped up, unregulated and unrestrained during recent elections and the EU referendum.

We now know that electoral law was broken by some of the Leave campaign groups during the EU referendum. We know campaign spending limits were breached and that unlawful foreign donations were made through online platforms. These are findings made by the Information Commissioner and the Electoral Commission. The National Crime Agency is also investigating Aaron Banks, the largest political donor in UK history, and senior figures of the Leave.EU campaign, because there are reasonable grounds to suspect that Banks was not the true source of PS8m in funding to the Leave.EU campaign.

We have recommended regulation to combat this threat to our democratic systems. We believe enhanced powers for the ICO and a beefed-up Electoral Commission would go some way to tackling the malaise, with funding for these changes coming from a levy on tech companies themselves.

While improved regulation and enforcement will help, it is clear our electoral laws are simply not fit for purpose. Social media users need to know the source of what they're reading, who paid for it and which country it originated in. Again, transparency, accountability and proper meaningful sanctions and penalties for breaches of electoral laws are needed.

And in Wales, where the Assembly is about to debate new legislation covering certain elections here, now is the right time for us to think and act on how we safeguard democratic systems for the future.

The Welsh Labour Government has led the way with the introduction of votes at 16 for Welsh Assembly and council elections, engaging thousands more young people in the democratic process. But with more and more young people accessing and consuming news almost exclusively online and increasingly through social media, the danger posed by fake news and disinformation is real and present.

As so often, education and engagement offer some protection, which is why our committee recommended that digital literacy be promoted as the fourth pillar of education alongside reading, writing and maths. And yet again, we were firm in our position on who should pay for this - the social media companies themselves.

In Wales, there have already been curriculum changes to better reflect the digital world, along with welcome steps like the Online Safety Action Plan launched late last year. But we can - and must - do more still, less we risk the good done by extending the franchise in Wales being fractured irreparably by a tsunami of targeted, toxic disinformation.

Our DCMS Committee report is no counsel of despair; it is unflinching in in its assessment of the scale and danger of the threat. The report itself says that "whilst the internet has brought many freedoms across the world, and an unprecedented ability to communicate, it also carries the insidious ability to distort, to mislead and to produce hatred and instability".

We have a duty - as a Committee, a Parliament and a society - to do all we can to harness that undeniable good, while doing all we can to eradicate its associated dangers.


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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 18, 2019
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