Westminster's Fake News Inquiry has some good recommendations, but provides too many scapegoats for our failing politics.
It’s pretty rare for the report of a minor parliamentary committee to generate such a buzz but perhaps less surprising when the topic is ‘fake news’ and the main villain of the piece is one of the world’s most valuable – and controversial - companies, Facebook.
Traditional news outlets have queued up to congratulate the chair, Damian Collins, and members of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee for confronting the horrors of misinformation, condemning the monopoly power of giant tech companies and revealing the ways in which Facebook has facilitated disinformation and hate speech, in particular in relation to allegations of Russian involvement in the 2016 Brexit vote.
The Washington Post described the committee as a ‘plucky little panel’ while the New York Times hinted that its findings had influenced the decision of the US Senate Intelligence Committee to launch a similar investigation on foreign intervention into domestic affairs. Matthew d’Ancona in the Guardian insisted that this was ‘an admirable example of how parliament can use its powers to frame public policy and urge legislature and executive to respond with equal vigour’ while the New Statesman congratulated the report on coming up with an effective means of regulating tech platforms.
I can’t remember an official inquiry being received with such gusto but then the report is rescue remedy for legacy media and centrist politics at a time when both have taken some serious knocks. For example, it makes some important conclusions about how to tackle power and wealth in the digital age and confronts some highly insalubrious characters. The lack of transparency about the source of Vote Leave’s finances as well as the behaviour of Arron Banks and Dominic Cummings ahead of the referendum shows everything that is wrong with the role of big money in elections.
Meanwhile Facebook has, up to this point, miraculously escaped serious regulatory scrutiny. As Siva Vaidhyanathan shows in his elegant new book, Antisocial Media, Facebook is a surveillance ‘machine’ that weaponises friendship and fuels bigotry without the possibility of redress or meaningful debate. It is, he argues, great for entertainment but terrible for deliberation.
In this context, I agree with a number of the report’s recommendations, including its call for algorithmic audits to enforce accountability, industry levies and a reclassification of tech companies so that they are required to accept specific responsibilities and liabilities. Such measures are long overdue.
The report, however, is concerned with far more than just algorithms but with the very nature of democratic life. It argues that, thanks to targeted advertising and unscrupulous data sources, ‘our shared values and the integrity of our democratic institutions’ are both ‘at risk’. ‘Fake news’, it appears, is the main cancer that is undermining our electoral processes and fostering ‘hyper-partisan’ views which are polarising contemporary politics.
This is a very myopic view of a political communications system that has for many years relied on misinformation, spin and cosy relationships between political and media elites. Our political culture was corrupted long before Mark Zuckerberg and even Cambridge Analytica’s Alexander Nix were on the scene. Highlighting the evils of social media at the expense of legacy media in promoting bigotry ignores the more everyday racism of popular news outlets, for example the entirely lawful and openly anti-immigrant front pages that dominated the Mail and the Express throughout the Brexit referendum. Focusing on Banks and Cummings, as vile as they are, without an historical narrative about the decline in public trust of official politics, deflects our attention from the serious damage done to democratic institutions when Tony Blair lied about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and when Alastair Campbell released his ‘dodgy dossier’.
The report actually acknowledges the frailty of the term ‘fake news’ in that it refers to hugely different practices – from falsehoods deliberately concocted to undermine elections and referenda through to perspectives that are simply seen as unwelcome and controversial – and suggests that government should, from now on, refer to misinformation instead. This is probably a sensible step, particularly in the light of academic findings that reveal that most ordinary users see the difference between deliberate misinformation and mainstream journalism as one of ‘degree’ and fail to make a clear distinction between them. While being aware of the extent of misinformation online, users interviewed by researchers from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism actually ‘placed more emphasis on journalists and politicians as purveyors of fake news’. Little wonder therefore that the ‘fake news’ report has been greeted so positively by many journalists. The fact remains, however, that misinformation is not the exclusive property of Russian plutocrats and Macedonian teenagers but also lies much closer to home with the ‘legitimate’ activities of our own security services, government communications and legacy media.
Indeed, we lack sufficient empirical data about the scale and impact of deliberate misinformation circulating through channels like Facebook. So while Buzzfeed famously found that in the final three months of the 2016 US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from elite media, economists Allcott and Gentzkow, on the other hand, conducted a huge analysis of social media data from the election and found that the average adult saw and remembered a mere 1.14 fake stories. None of the ‘false news websites’ studied by Reuters researchers during the 2018 Italian and French elections had an average monthly reach of over 3.5% compared to the dominant news sites of Le Figaro and La Repubblica which had a monthly reach of 22% and 51% respectively. The fact is we simply don’t know how big a problem ‘fake news’ is in terms of its material impact on voting behaviour although it certainly provides official politics with some useful scapegoats in such a polarised political climate, not least the idea – powerfully challenged by Noam Chomsky recently – that the Russians aren’t just coming but have arrived in domestic politics.
The irony of the Commons select committee receiving such a positive response about its ‘fake news’ report is that it did little under its previous chairs to address the deregulatory climate which allowed Facebook and Google, as well as the Mail and the Sun, to assume such dominant positions in our media diets. ‘Fake news’ is not an exception to but the logical result of a commercial media system that privileges short-term rewards and commercial impact. The rise of programmatic advertising and the domination of advertising by Google and Facebook are hardly peripheral developments but part of a structural readjustment of the media. So while it’s welcome that the Committee is now identifying digital monopolies as a ‘problem’, it was the lack of ‘plucky’ behaviour by politicians and regulators that allowed them to become such a problem in the first place.
So hats off to the Committee for finally realising that something needs to be done to tackle the unaccountable power of tech giants. But if we imagine that democracy only started to wither with the arrival of social media and if we refuse to acknowledge the role of our mainstream media and centrist politicians in paving the way for the latest ‘crisis of democracy’, then we’re bound to keep repeating the same mistakes.
Des Freedman (@lazebnic) is Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of ‘The Contradictions of Media Power’ (2014) and co-author (with James Curran and Natalie Fenton) of ‘Misunderstanding the Internet’ (2nd edition, 2016).
Caption: Arron Banks at the Fake News Inquiry. Image, Parliament.tv, fair use.