U.K. democracy 'facing a crisis' from U.S. social media giants

Register now

(Bloomberg) -- The U.K.’s political system cannot cope with the threats from fake news, according to a panel of British lawmakers investigating the impact of social media on recent elections.

U.K. authorities have been looking for signs of Russian meddling in the 2016 Brexit referendum after reports that Kremlin-backed groups used social media to influence elections and sow discord in the U.S. and other countries.

Led by Damian Collins, chairman of the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the investigation has involved countless hearings with representatives from both sides of the Brexit referendum and major tech companies including Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube.

"We are facing nothing less than a crisis in our democracy," Collins said in a statement. He cited “the systematic manipulation of data to support the relentless targeting of citizens, without their consent, by campaigns of disinformation and messages of hate."

The group set out the following recommendations in its interim report published Sunday:

  • Tech companies should be forced to pay a levy to help fund the U.K. data regulator
  • The government should make sure personal data of U.K. citizens cannot be processed in the U.S. by social media companies
  • The election regulator’s current maximum fine limit of 20,000 pounds ($26,000) should be increased and based on a fixed percentage of revenue
  • Tech companies should be given their own regulations, where they are neither a platform nor a publisher
  • Tech companies should do more to reveal those who abuse people online while hiding behind anonymous accounts
  • U.K. regulators should be given the power to audit the technology of social media companies
  • The National Crime Agency should investigate Emerdata Ltd., the new company founded by group of former Cambridge Analytica employees

This is only an interim report, and the panel will publish its full findings in the fall. While the committee has no legislative power, it has been particularly vocal in its attempts to hold tech companies to account.

One particular battle concerned those who refused to turn up. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly spurned requests from an increasingly irate Collins to give evidence, instead sending a string of lieutenants. Once again, the committee called for Zuckerberg to appear in front of the panel.

Although the committee lacks legal power, it has contributed to the many voices calling for social media companies to do more to change their platforms. Recent financial results from companies such as Facebook and Twitter suggest political scrutiny may be beginning to affect the companies’ profits

Twitter said on Friday that monthly users dropped by 1 million in the second quarter, and predicted that number will decline further as the company continues to fight against spam, fake accounts and trolls. Shares in Facebook also plunged following its first major financial stumble in three years, after a quarter in which data-privacy issues came under harsh scrutiny.

Bloomberg News