Amidst the continuing chaos over Brexit, and news about splits from both main parties, one major piece of news was lost last week.
The Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport published its report into Fake News and Disinformation.
I had been a member on that committee for much of the inquiry before stepping down to take up front bench responsibilities. And although I am disappointed that the report did not get the coverage it deserved, I am sure it will stand the test of time and will lead to major change.
In February last year we visited New York and Washington, and became the first select committee to hold a formal hearing outside the UK. Back home the national press sneered at us for going on a freebie, a jolly or a holiday. Nobody is sneering now, however.
Taking evidence from Facebook, Google and Twitter, the Americans were amazed at how well the committee worked together, across parties, to question the witnesses. In the USA they were used to their congressmen grandstanding and shouting at witnesses but not actually achieving anything.
Facebook comes across worst in the report. They were revealed to have played fast and loose with users’ data, and used this not just to maximise profits but to allow malign players to use Facebook to spread fake news, and not do anything about it. Their answers to the committee were clearly evasive and dishonest.
For example we are only now seeing the extent of Russian influence in the Euro referendum to spread support for Brexit, which President Putin supports.
A company called Cambridge Analytica was forced out of business after the committee, with the support of journalists, showed it to have used disinformation in election campaigns in regions as diverse as West Africa and the Caribbean.
Both Leave campaigns in the referendum were found to have cheated, misusing data and overspending.
One of the Committee’s recommendations has already been adopted by Facebook: all political adverts now have to be registered with Facebook and kept where people can see them. Of course, that would not stop a private individual posting a ‘political’ advert, but they would be unlikely to have the financial muscle to pay Facebook thousands to disseminate an advert widely that was purveying fake news.
Perhaps one of the most important proposals was to improve digital literacy. We can’t stamp out fake news entirely, but we can teach our children not to believe everything they read on their phones or computers, just as we teach them to be safe online.
The report may have been lost in all of the other news, but I am confident it will be have a long lasting effect on the way these big tech companies operate.