In a rare move, some members of the British Parliament are traveling to Washington this week to question Facebook, Google and Twitter about fake news and the spread of misinformation on their platforms. Experts say that by coming to the United States, U.K. officials are signaling how seriously they're treating the issue.
The House of Commons' Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee will hold a hearing Thursday as part of an evidence-gathering mission to understand how disinformation campaigns and false news reports affect British elections and society. This is the first time a House of Commons committee will broadcast a public hearing live from outside the United Kingdom. Representatives from the tech companies, media researchers and news industry executives will gather before the 11-person, cross-party committee at George Washington University.
“The committee understands that the businesses that created this moral panic originated here. And they recognize that we are ahead of them in confronting it from a policy perspective and a national conversation perspective,” said David Carroll, a professor of media design at Parsons School for Design, who will speak as an expert witness at the hearing.
The committee's trip to Washington comes as British officials have continued to raise alarms over foreign disinformation campaigns executed through social media. In November, British Prime Minister Theresa May openly accused Russia of meddling in British elections and attempting to undermine Western democracies.
“It is seeking to weaponize information. Deploying its state-run media organizations to plant fake stories and Photoshopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the west and undermine our institutions,” she said. May's office has since announced the creation of a national security communications unit to bolster Britain's efforts to counter misinformation campaigns by state actors.
Beyond the spread of misinformation, European officials have continued to scrutinize the business practices of dominant U.S. tech companies. The British government announced Tuesday that it will examine how Facebook and Google pay news outlets for their content and to gauge the sustainability of the news media in the digital age, with a focus on digital advertising. In May, sweeping new privacy rules will take effect, known as the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, designed to give European citizens more control over the data collected about them by major tech companies. And Apple and Google face multibillion-dollar liabilities stemming from back taxes and antitrust violations, respectively.
Back in Washington, Congress has taken a more assertive stance against Silicon Valley in recent months. Some lawmakers are seeking new regulations for digital platforms and the business of online political advertising. Facebook, Google and Twitter executives were grilled by U.S. lawmakers during a series of high-profile congressional hearings last year for not doing enough to minimize Russian meddling. Several members of Congress have proposed new rules that would strike at the heart of their businesses: online ads. The proposed legislation would require stricter disclosure requirements for political ads that run on large Web platforms. The three companies have said they support greater transparency in online ads. But they have not explicitly backed the bill, known as the Honest Ads Act.
Thursday's hearing will press the policy chiefs of Facebook, Google and Twitter for answers on the scope of disinformation on their platforms and for solutions to minimize the spread of propaganda that impacted the 2016 Brexit referendum to leave the European Union and the 2016 presidential election in the United States.
According to the committee's website, the scope of the inquiry includes broad questions such as:
What is “fake news”? Where does biased but legitimate commentary shade into propaganda and lies?
What impact has fake news on public understanding of the world, and also on the public response to traditional journalism? If all views are equally valid, does objectivity and balance lose all value?
Have changes in the selling and placing of advertising encouraged the growth of fake news, for example by making it profitable to use fake news to attract more hits to websites, and thus more income from advertisers?
The hearing will take place over one day, and will begin with three question-and-answer sessions featuring tech executives, each lasting one hour. Google will start the day, with Richard Gingras, the vice president of news, and Juniper Downs, YouTube’s global head of public policy. Facebook's Monika Bickert, head of global policy management, and Simon Milner, Facebook's policy director of the U.K., Middle East and Africa will answer questions next. Twitter will then conclude the morning panel, with Carlos Monje, the director of public policy and philanthropy for the United States and Canada, and Nick Pickles, the head of public policy and philanthropy for the United Kingdom.
Twitter and Google declined to comment for this story. Facebook said that it appreciated the chance to testify and pointed to its existing correspondence with the committee.